In the golden years of Hollywood, stars used to be referred to either as “rug actors” or “dust actors.” Rug actors played indoor parts—those requiring love scenes and speechifying—while their dust counterparts were good for action and shoot-’em-ups.
In the golden years of Denzel Washington, however, he’s amply proven he can play both dust and rug. The 60-year-old actor has spent the latter part of his career perfecting two seemingly incongruous character types—the bookish teacher and the merciless vigilante killer. He’s made a convincing professor, coach, and life mentor: Remember the Titans, Malcolm X, Cry Freedom, and The Great Debaters had him speaking inspirational quotes in place of dialogue. But in Training Day, Man on Fire, American Gangster, and Safe House he cut an equally believable criminal, indulging in violence and other vices while plastered with a grim Bogart-like grin.
That’s what makes The Equalizer, out in theaters today, the ultimate Denzel movie. In it, he delivers English lectures, uplifting speeches, dance moves (to Gladys Knight & the Pips), and brutal staple-gun assassinations. He passes a lot of time reading leatherbound, gold-embossed classics of the Western canon; he spends the rest of his time killing. He makes easy friends with young, lost people in need of instruction; he makes enemies pretty quickly, too (or he would, if only he allowed them to live long enough to develop opinions). This is all to say that The Equalizer synthesizes Washington's uber-character: a righteous assassin who is also a deep lover of, and sometimes-teacher of, literature.
At the movie’s open, our hero Robert McCall (“Bob” to those who don’t know him) is more apt scholar than aging-gentleman action hero. By day Robert manages in an orange apron at the movie’s equivalent of the Home Depot, Home Mart (product placement abounds in this very commercial movie, but apparently the hardware retailer wasn’t eager to lend its name to what becomes, essentially, the Equalizer’s serial-killing supply closet). He befriends an employee in need of some weight-loss motivation, warning against the ills of sodium and refined sugar—and seemingly leads by example, too, for almond milk is visible in his grocery bag. By night he’s proffering life advice to the troubled young prostitute Alina (Chloë Grace Moretz) at a 24-hour diner and schooling her on The Old Man and the Sea, all of which savors of Remember the Titans’ teachings (Gettysburg history) or The Great Debaters’ uplifting lectures (Langston Hughes).
Robert uses Hemingway to bolster his advice that Alina should start following her dreams, not streetwalking. But he also uses Hemingway to explain why, after she gets beaten to a pulp by her cruel Russian pimp, he embarks on an unrelenting killing spree that begins with the perpetrators and then extends to Boston’s criminal underworld at large. Why doesn’t the old man just let the fish go, Alina asks in one scene? “Old man’s gotta be the old man, fish has gotta be the fish. You gotta be who you are in this world, no matter what,” he replies. And so it is that Denzel’s gotta be what Denzel’s gotta be: an East Coast crime-syndicate-conquering avenger with a thing for inventive, DIY torture, and the star of another “Geri-Action” blockbuster.
Which means his character’s pedantic in the ways of kicking ass, too. As Robert gets on with the slaughter of dozens of pimps and criminals, the movie becomes a primer in how to read an everyday situation and then determine the best ways in which to kill the people in it. Point-of-view slow-motion shots during fight scenes cue the audience into the thinking that goes into the making of a useful microwave bomb, or how to dress gunshot wounds using the contents of the common cupboard. The movie’s very upfront about its educational component: Before my screening, Sony brought in an MMA fighter to demonstrate some self-defense moves.
These kinds of analytical breakdowns of a character's mental process were first made popular on the BBC series Sherlock, where the stakes are often equally explosive but the characters are less mentorlike. The Equalizer, by contrast, makes critical thinking and efficient killing fairly synonymous. There’s even a sequence in which a delivery truck for the Boston Herald aids Robert’s getaway from the murder scene: torture, with a pro-reading message!
All of this has a strange commercial logic. Today’s lucrative late-career action stars are, for the most part, cashing in on their greatest hits and pre-established celebrity. When Andrew Romano investigated what he called the “Neesification” of action movies for The Daily Beast earlier this year, he learned these films are conceived for older-demographic moviegoers who remain fannishly loyal to particular stars, especially Washington, Sean Penn, and Liam Neeson. Some movies in the genre, like The Expendables, play off previously established action reputations (Willis, Norris, Stallone, Van Damme); others, such as Red and Taken, make the most of the novelty of a respected thespian (Mirren, Freeman, Neeson) transforming into a fast-moving killer.
Washington lies somewhere in between those two poles: He can play prestigious and win Oscars; he can also believably off baddies. And he’s so good at playing teacher and killer that The Equalizer’s attempt at a “smart blockbuster” almost works. The movie nearly makes the argument that one can both cherish Hemingway and kill in his name.
Ultimately, though, its plentiful author name-dropping and deliberate action filmmaking is just dumb. The movie’s all about reading, especially with a critical eye, but when you take too close a look at its disparate parts, they neither add up nor have anything constructive to teach. Robert preaches that the younger players should hold themselves to a higher standard to create a better life for themselves, but he doesn’t take his own advice. Instead of getting a new job, as he recommends Alina do, he backslides into fashioning barbed-wire nooses at the workplace. He eats well, but it’s all in service of disarming gunslingers effectively enough to merit an accompanying power ballad by Eminem and Sia. Ultimately, Denzel’s leading, but it’s by a very gruesome example.