If nothing else, The Equalizer wins my respect - a form of it, anyway - for how committed it is to being itself. Denzel Washington plays a man with a very particular set of skills who decides to start pushing back against injustice and exploitation by unflinchingly engaging in acts of bloody, bloody violence; well, then, that is all there is to be said on the matter, and that is the movie we will get, for 132 minutes of almost uninterrupted severity. Within the first minute of the film, there's a shot of a measuring cup full of blueberries for a morning smoothie, shot in an extreme close-up that makes those blueberries look, by God, like the most angry, menacing, intense berries that ever stormed their way off a bush and into a man's belly. And from that point on, there's very little doubt that The Equalizer shall see fit to eschew any thing resembling irony or detachment.

Washington plays Robert McCall, a man with a mysterious and deliberately cryptic past that we first only know involves a dead wife. And while it's not very difficult to suss out the general shape, if not all the particular details, of what happened to him before he ended up hiding out in a shabby Boston diner reading books, drinking tea, and acting as a mentor to weary teenage prostitute Alina (Chloë Grace Moretz), the film resists confirming even the things we understand pretty early and pretty intuitively until deep, deep into the running time. Which does a lot of things, some good (it staves off the exposition dump until a place where it gets to feel natural and implied), and at least one that's not good at all, which is that by defining McCall in terms of the identity that we're not privy to, he's always kept at an enormous emotional remove from the audience. And no matter how many books he's reading whose content oh-so-conveniently maps onto the themes of that part of the story, the film can't cheat its way into making him seem like a real psychological presence for us to cling to. I would compare it to something like Taken, a film which The Equalizer resembles in a number of small but useful ways, we're told enough about Liam Neeson's character that we get to feel like we're right there along with him every step of the way; The Equalizer makes it so clear that Washington's character knows more than we do about everything, he almost doesn't feel human.

The result is a film where one tends to watch the protagonist rather more than one roots for him, which isn't necessarily a problem. It gives The Equalizer the feeling of a procedural, almost, except instead of watching cops or doctors go about the business of copping or doctoring, we're watching someone outside any kind of system use his very obsessive, detail-oriented worldview (the film alludes to McCall having OCD without emphasising it, or doing a whole hell of a lot with it) and impeccable physical skills go through the business of ruthlessly and calmly exterminating what feels like dozens of Russian gangsters by the time it's all over. The film has a clinical remove from the action that serves it well: for the film also has enough lingering moments of extreme and outrageous violence that it wouldn't take much tinkering to push it into the realm of torture porn (the finale takes place at an off-brand Home Depot analogue, and the filmmakers make full creative use of the whole range of tools and building equipment available in a big box construction store). But because director Antoine Fuqua always keeps the violence two steps away - as robotically considered by McCall, whom we are always kept arm's length away from - it never feels especially exploitative or disgusting for the sake of it. Though I'd still warn anybody away from the film who has a weak stomach for evocative gore effects (frankly, The Equalizer serves as the latest proof that big-budget movies apparently can't go far enough to snag a rating of NC-17 for violence).

This makes for a somewhat different experience than the usual "Denzel is a slightly scary bad-ass" routine (of the sort Fuqua has already done with 2001's Training Day, which did much to concrete the formula into place), with both more brutality and less glee in its brutality than is common to the violent action movie. And that makes it kind of interesting as a genre exercise, though it's not equally interesting as a film unto itself; for one thing, it's much, much too long and unfocused, with subplots that all seem to suggest that McCall's initial act of retributive mercy for his little prostitute buddy has triggered within him has turned him into a kind of modern knight errant, helping to even the odds for people who can't fight the broken, corrupt world on their own (this was the thrust of the '80s TV show which the film adapts). Which is lovely and all, but it adds a lot of fat to a movie that surely does act, and look, and sound like it should be lean and wiry and propulsive. Instead, we get tens of minutes of McCall tracking down the dirty cops who torched the taqueria own by the mother of his overweight co-worker Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis). Not tens of minutes, in fairness. But too damn many minutes that take away from the matter of Russian gangsters and the dead-eyed psychopath Teddy (Marton Csokas) who has come to Boston to find and eliminate the vigilante causing such problems for the mob's call girl ring. The film never builds momentum as a result, and when a 132-minute film about Denzel Washington finding imaginative ways to kill bad guys with a sorrowful expression on his face, a lack of momentum is deadly.

There's some fun stylistic flourishes (the process by which McCall takes note of his surroundings and plans his attack uses the same flashing, speed-ramping that Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes used for the same purpose, but in a calmer, more aesthetically tethered way), and Washington's wise gravitas and sense of real disappointment in himself and his targets as he kills them almost qualifies as nuanced morality and character-building by the standards of the genre we're looking at. But the film as a whole is a bit lead-footed and a lot misshapen, and it can't split the difference between scenes of McCall spying and planning vs. McCall killing people excessively in a way that makes any of it seem very exciting or pleasurable to watch. As with Neeson, there's a fairly high bottom level that these films of Washington being hard and violent can reach, in terms of professionalism and actorly presence, but The Equalizer doesn't do much to rise above that minimum.