Denzel Washington won his 2001 Oscar the hard way.
He became only the second black lead actor to win the award not in a biopic or a war movie but in “Training Day,” an action thriller and one of the least Academy-friendly genres. On top of that, he also played a monstrously corrupt cop. Villains rarely are bestowed with leading-man gold unless they are as deliciously charming as Hannibal Lecter.
Yet he was victorious. Why? Because in Denzel we trust. He is truly one of the last real Hollywood stars left standing that moviegoers will go see in almost anything. And even when he is bad, he is oh so good.
Little wonder then that Washington’s cool-headed portrait of aging tough guy Robert McCall in “The Equalizer,” which opened this past weekend to a resounding $35 million, puts to shame Liam Neeson’s outlandish antics in the “Taken” films and Sylvester Stallone with his crusty bunch of AARP-approved oldsters in “The Expendables” series.
Just as he has done his entire career, Washington — as much at home in loftier-minded fare like “Malcolm X” as he is in popcorn outings like “Inside Man” — has found a perfect balance between his serious side and his desire to entertain audiences in “The Equalizer” as a retired CIA operative turned civilian undercover vigilante who attempts to wipe out a regime of Russian gangsters infiltrating the Boston metro area.
Sadly, Tony Scott — director of five of his most noteworthy action thrillers including “Crimson Tide” and “Man on Fire” – is out of the picture after having committed suicide in 2012. But after 13 years, Washington wisely decided to reunite with his “Training Day” pal, Antoine Fuqua. Together, it looks as if as they have managed to launch the actor’s first-ever franchise, bolstered by “The Equalizer’s” box-office success.
Now Washington, who turns 60 in December, and his character can grow older – and ever cooler – together as McCall metes out his distinctive brand of lightning swift yet oddly Zen-like punishment for those who prey upon the innocent.
It isn’t easy to pull off a less histrionic version of an action-packed adventure in these days of bigger-is-better 3-D explosions and outlandish sky-high shootouts. Neeson tried to take it down a notch in the overly somber “A Walk Among the Tombstones” earlier this month and ended up with a disappointing $13 million opening, a slim percentage of what 2012’s “Taken 2” pulled in.
Any action actor eligible for Medicare – we mean you, Sly, 68 and Arnie, 67 –would do well to follow Washington’s example of how to pull off a physical role while maintaining your dignity as you put evildoers in their place. Five ways that Denzel in “The Equalizer” slays his senior-discount competition:
1. McCall is your friendly neighborhood Everyman who acts his age.
Washington eschews vanity by sporting a bald head with a smattering of gray stubble and donning square dad jeans and New Balance sneakers. His McCall maintains a Spartan lifestyle and keeps his walkup apartment in a blue-collar neighborhood spic and span. He rides city buses and toils at a Home Depot-style mega-store. He is respected by his co-workers, even counseling a chubby would-be security guard on better healthy eating habits and working out.
As a result: His outwardly ordinary demeanor serves both as camouflage and armor as McCall is constantly underestimated by his foes. It also lends an air of mystery to this man. Plus, his kindness to others encourages the audience to root for him even if he can instantaneously assess a dangerous situation a la Sherlock and wipe out a roomful of no-goodniks within minutes (he times himself) with highly skilled brute force and the occasional corkscrew to the chin.
(Read Tom Breuggemann’s assessment of Washington’s longterm box office prowess here.)
2. McCall is a widower with insomniac issues who prefers the company of a good book. No romantic entanglements please.
You would figure such an upstanding eligible fellow would have ladies lining up around the block. But this loner prefers a cup of tea in an Edward Hopper-esque all-night diner and one of his dozens of hard-cover classics – “The Old Man and the Sea,” “Don Quixote,” “The Invisible Man.” Each title not-so-subtly echoes his stage in life as the deadly crusader still lurking in his soul is suddenly reawakened.
As a result: He has a reason for quitting his former job and also apparently has no loved ones who might be in peril if anyone comes after him – in other words, no close relatives to put in harm’s way or kidnap “Taken”-style.
3. His inner avenger is re-awakened by a melancholy underage prostitute named Teri, who uses the diner as a break room between clients.
Their relationship is strictly platonic with no hint of predatory urges or coy flirtations. A lesser hero might treat an abused call girl who is crying out for a sign of affection with something other than avuncular concern. But both Washington and actress Chloe Grace Moretz manage to pull off this unlikely friendship without turning off moviegoers – especially women, who are more likely to see this sort of macho mayhem onscreen if Denzel is in it.
As a result: When Teri is beaten by her Russian pimp, you can believe that McCall would suddenly go into retaliation mode for her sake by hunting down the gang who did this to her.
4. McCall goes after an antagonist who is worthy of his call back into action.
Shades of James Bond and the Cold War. After the takeover of the Ukraine, Russians are fair game again as bad guys who won’t offend anyone by being targeted in a movie. It turns out that high-priced hookers are just the tip of their sleazy greed-driven empire and the Mr. Big behind it all, a man of wealth and taste named Pushkin, relies on his slick enforcer to find out who is threatening his enterprise. New Zealand actor Marton Csokas as suavely demonic Teddy has Hitler’s intense eyes and Kevin Spacey’s devilish grin, and proves to be a fine snaky adversary for McCall, as crazily sadistic as Denzel is confidently serene.
As a result: The odds are stacked against McCall as underhanded cops and local Irish mobsters also get in the act. But by the time they join in the fun, we are ready to suspend belief and believe this lone man can save the day – with an eventual helping hand from some at-work friends.
5. When McCall’s vengeance rains down upon Teddy and his henchmen at his place of work, he relies upon his knowledge of the inventory and handyman skills to win the day.
Who needs an assault weapon when you have the entire stock of a major hardware store at your disposal? Certainly not McCall. Chains, shovels and the ever-popular nail gun as well as knowledge of lighting system make for a much more entertaining takedown than simply setting off bombs and ducking bullets.
As a result: This faceoff is inventive and clever enough, it could make you shudder the next time you walk the aisles of a Home Depot.
And here is a bonus lesson: Exhibit a humanizing sense of humor before the body count starts going into the double digits. That moment comes when some of McCall’s work colleagues persist in quizzing him about his past. His answer? “I was a Pip,” he says while flashing that killer Denzel smile while referring to Gladys Knight’s dancing backup singers. He even shows them an old clip of the group on his phone and attempts some fancy moves to convince them. The kicker, however, doesn’t arrive until much later when “MidnightTrain to Georgia” echoes through the store on its sound system — just as McCall is performing a number on the Russians.