September 2014 saw director Antoine Fuqua and Denzel Washington reteaming for a new filmic interpretation of The Equalizer; the latter of whom featured as the hero of the piece, Robert McCall. The film made almost $200 million during its
theatrical run and in February 2014, plans for a sequel were announced. In the age of watered-down PG-13 rated action films, something as brutal and tough as The Equalizer was a welcome occurrence for fans of adult action thrillers, and the movie
received an R rating in the United States for:
Strong bloody violence and language throughout, including some sexual references.
Cut for a 15 Rating in the UK
In the United Kingdom, the situation was a little different. During the editing of the film, Columbia Pictures approached the BBFC for advice on how they could secure a 15 rating for The Equalizer's British release. As the BBFC state on their
During post-production, the distributor sought and was given advice on how to secure the desired classification. The company was advised that the film was likely to receive an 18 certificate but that their preferred 15 classification could be
achieved by making cuts to reduce the violence in two scenes. When the finished version of the film was submitted for formal classification, edits had been made to reduce sequences of violence... The formal submission was consequently rated 15.
To understand the changes made to The Equalizer, we need to first look at the BBFC guidelines for violence in 15 rated films. In their own words, the BBFC state that:
Violence may be strong but should not dwell on the infliction of pain or injury. The strongest gory images are unlikely to be acceptable. Strong sadistic violence is also unlikely to be acceptable.
When the film was submitted for an advice viewing, the BBFC cited two scenes that would need to reduced for a 15 rating.
Cut Scenes: Corkscrewed
The first scene occurs about half an hour into the film where McCall takes down a group of bad guys in rapid succession. The last man standing is stabbed repeatedly with two corkscrews in various parts of his body, with the coup de grace
being McCall's stabbing of the man through the bottom of his chin. Two cuts were made to this event, to eliminate (in the BBFC's words) the "dwelling on the infliction of pain and injury".
The first cut removes the sight of McCall pushing a corkscrew further into the man's mouth with a crunch as he yells, along with the sight of blood running from his open mouth. A few seconds later, a brief shot of the man's face was also
reduced in length just before McCall withdraws the corkscrew.
Cut Scenes: Hanged
The second scene the BBFC objected to occurs towards the end of the film, when McCall hangs an enemy on a barbed wire noose. A shot showing the man choking and struggling as blood runs from his neck as McCall looks on sadistically was
removed, with only the shot of the enemy dying a few seconds later being retained.
His death is over a little more quickly in the cut version, with, once again, a lack of dwelling on the enemy's pain and injury.
These were not the only cuts made to the film, however -- Columbia Pictures also made four additional cuts in two more violent scenes for a 15 rating. The BBFC do not explicitly note these scenes on their website, so it is unknown if the
distributors made further cuts themselves or if the BBFC simply do not cite them in their records.
Cut Scenes: Punched
The first of the additional alteration reduces the protracted beating up of the construction worker Little John by Nicolai.
A medium close-up showing Nicolai beating the John's bloodied face twice was reduced so that only the first punch is seen, and a shot from behind that shows Nicolai readying for another punch a few seconds later was also (bizarrely) reduced
in length, which makes no difference to the strength of the scene.
Cut Scenes: Speared
The next changes made by the filmmakers occur after the aforementioned hanging scene. After McCall stabs an enemy in the neck with a spear, two cuts were made to reduce the sight of the blade protruding through the man's neck, with around
five seconds of footage being eliminated.
After these seven cuts had been made, which totalled around 15 seconds, The Equalizer was submitted for a formal BBFC classification and was passed without formal cuts with a 15 rating on September 3rd 2014 for:
Strong bloody violence, sex references, strong language.
BBFC Equalize 15 and 18
A point worth raising here is how necessary these cuts were, and how much of a difference they made to the film as a whole. In a film containing a lot of bloody and brutal violence, why does an occurrence such as a couple of brief shots that show
a weapon embedded in a man's chin suddenly become too much for 15 year olds to handle? In the hanging scene, it's acceptable for us to see a man hanging, choking and dying, but yet a single close-up shot of this event is what pushes the film into
adult territory. Finicky cuts like those made to The Equalizer recall the days of James Ferman, who would often trim the briefest of details in order to reduce a violent scene.
The BBFC say that "strong sadistic violence is unlikely to be permitted" in 15 rated films; but one could argue that McCall's many novel executions in the film are precisely that -- sadistic. In the corkscrew scene, the enemy is stabbed
repeatedly, with McCall at one point twisting the corkscrew in the man's stomach. McCall watches enemies die seemingly without remorse; at one point he sits down and talks calmly to an enemy bleeding to death as he struggles to breathe and speak,
with a large pool of blood forming beside his body.
There is far more blood on show during this scene than there is during the corkscrew death -- one may even argue there is "dwelling on injury" here, since the blood is seen gathering beside the man's body.
It is fair to say that not all of the film's violent acts contain graphic detail, which is why the violence was seen by the BBFC as being acceptable at 15 (aside from the cuts already mentioned). But does a lack of detail make a difference in a
dark film like this? The implication of something can be more effective than us actually seeing it -- so a man being brutally beaten repeatedly is acceptable because we never see his injuries, as is the boring into the base of a man's skull with
an electric drill because we never see the aftermath.
What message, if any, does this portray to teenagers? Script Editor Eric Saward worked on the BBC television series Doctor Who during the 1980s, and some stories made during his tenure came under fire from certain parties who felt that Doctor Who
was too violent. When interviewed about this in 1993, his argument about the portrayal of violence is a valid point worth mentioning here:
If you display violence, you should show it for what it is. When you do display violence, you should show it hurts.
Is it not unreasonable to argue that the BBFC cuts made to The Equalizer ironically make the violence worse because we do not fully see the consequences of McCall's actions -- especially since the character makes reference to not wishing to
return to a life of killing. Surely leaving the violence untouched would have made his words carry a little more weight within the context of the film's narrative? A similar argument has cropped up regarding PG-13 rated films in the United
States, whereby it seems that violence is acceptable so long as you don't see any consequences of the event in question.
The trims made to The Equalizer make little difference to the film overall, and in this specific case, it would have perhaps made more sense to simply classify the uncut version of the film with a 15 rating, instead of suggesting a few trims that
do little or nothing to dilute the impact of the film's bloody violence. When scenes such as the repeated shooting of a man with a nail gun (who is then shot in the throat) are deemed suitable for consumption by mid-teenagers and left untouched,
the removal of a dimly-lit and undetailed shot of a man with a spear in his neck that lasts for a couple of seconds seems ridiculous and entirely at odds with the BBFC's own guidelines about sadistic violence.
Times change, of course, and it will be interesting to see how long it is before the uncut version of the film is downgraded to a 15 rating. After all, many action films that were cut 20 years ago for violence during Ferman's tenure are now
available fully uncut -- sometimes with a downgrade to a lower rating.
Cuts maintained for UK DVD
A lot of film companies choose to release uncut versions of a film on Blu-ray following a cut UK theatrical release, but in the case of The Equalizer, Sony elected not to release the uncut version with an 18 rating on DVD or Blu-ray. The censored
UK version of the film was submitted to the BBFC for the DVD and Blu-ray releases, and was passed with a 15 rating on December 5th 2014. It is the only version currently available to UK buyers.
Cut UK DVD
Uncut Australian region free Blu-ray
For British buyers wishing to own the uncut version of The Equalizer, they can import the Region B release from Australia, which is fully uncut with an MA15+ rating. This disc will play on all UK Blu-ray players (which are also set to Region B)
without issue. Alternatively, UK buyers with the capability to play Region A discs can import the American Blu-ray release, which is also fully uncut. As it stands now, all UK versions should be avoided by fans of the film who wish to experience
The Equalizer as Antoine Fuqua intended.
Cutting Edge Episode 24: The Equalizer
All articles are original works compiled by Gavin Salkeld, with occasional help from a small team of researchers. Particular thanks are due to the BBFC for their diligent and helpful explanations of their interventions.