‘The Equalizer’ Review: Queen Latifah on the CBS Assembly Line

Hearing that Queen Latifah is playing the title role in a new iteration of “The Equalizer” — that combination of latter-day Robin Hood and action-movie vigilante — inspires equal measures of expectation and dread. When she cuts loose, in movies like “Bessie” and “Chicago,” she has a fierce and quick-witted swagger few performers can match. But will a CBS procedural drama give her the room to do anything besides cash checks for seven or eight years?

In the words of the ad the Equalizer uses to solicit clients — placed in a newspaper in the 1980s television series, on Craigslist in the 2014 film remake and on social media in the new series — the odds are against her. And on the evidence of Sunday night’s premiere, the only episode available for review, CBS is firmly in control. Latifah puts a human face on the formulaic silliness and incapacitates faceless bad guys with aplomb, but there’s nothing in the pilot that requires her to do anything but coast on her charm.

Like the male Equalizers played by Edward Woodward (in the original series) and Denzel Washington (in two films), Latifah’s Robyn McCall is a former intelligence operative — this time identified as a C.I.A. agent — who grew disillusioned with the government’s methods and retired. “Everybody’s playing chess, nobody’s thinking about the living, breathing pieces that we sacrifice along the way,” she tells her former C.I.A. boss (played by Chris Noth) in a prime example of the dialogue, alternately stiff and threadbare, she has to do battle with. (“Remember Tangiers?” “I smell a rat.”)

Like Washington’s McCall in the films, she’s accidentally drawn into her new career of do-goodery when she comes to the aid of a young woman in trouble. It’s emblematic of the plot contrivances rigged by the show’s creators, Andrew W. Marlowe and Terri Edda Miller, that McCall randomly spots the woman late at night at Coney Island, follows her out of protective curiosity and is quickly drawn into a scheme involving a murdered lawyer, mercenary war criminals, a deep-fake video and an Elon Musk-style auto executive.

It takes a good measure of ingenuity and storytelling pizazz to pull that kind of thing off week in and week out; Marlowe’s previous series, “Castle,” on ABC, had a modicum of those qualities, but the “Equalizer” pilot is too drab and limp to lift you past the implausibilities. CBS, in its outreach to critics, has tried to position the show as an exemplar of inclusion, female empowerment and concern for social justice, but so far that feels like lip service; in dramatic terms, the show is “MacGyver” with fewer gadgets or “Magnum P.I.” without the beach. (One example of the show’s level of wit: When the former C.I.A. agent McCall is captured and questioned in a New York warehouse, the villains go to the trouble of waterboarding her.)

The gender reversal of the action-figure protagonist doesn’t figure very prominently in the pilot, though McCall is now a single mother to a rebellious teenager. (Laya DeLeon Hayes gives the show some energy as the daughter, who’s bewildered by her mother’s sudden unemployment.)

The biggest change in the structure of the story, in keeping with current practice for network procedurals, is that McCall isn’t the lone wolf of the earlier versions. She lives with her daughter and aunt (Lorraine Toussaint, barely visible in the pilot) and has an ad hoc team consisting of a former agency sharpshooter (Liza Lapira) and her hacker husband (Adam Goldberg), who work in a grand basement lair recalling a much better CBS drama, “Person of Interest.”

Latifah, headlining a series for the first time since the ensemble sitcom “Living Single” ended more than 20 years ago, has such sure instincts and easy confidence that she isn’t brought down by the material. And when the script gives her the chance, in moments here and there with Hayes or Noth, she nails a line or a reaction in a way that makes you see McCall as a real human being. Time will tell whether she can step all the way off the CBS assembly line.

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