Denzel Washington doesn’t demonstrate how great he is with first-rate scripts such as “Flight.” He does it by elevating sophisticated pulp like “The Equalizer” to a higher level.
The centerpiece of his performance comes when he sits across the table from a Russian assassin to tell a long story about an abused boy who turned into a profoundly broken adult. Think of all the other action heroes over 50 who might have been called to do this job – Liam Neeson, Bruce Willis, even (God forbid) Nicolas Cage or Sylvester Stallone – and you know you’d be laughing, wincing or simply letting your attention drift as they spoke. With Washington, you can barely breathe.
That’s a good thing, as he’s not given a complex character by Richard Wenk, who based his screenplay on the 1980s TV show. Robert McCall, a black ops commando who “retired” from the CIA by faking his own death, now works in a huge hardware store. He reads classic novels, lives in a tidy house that’s free of personality and encourages co-workers to chase their dreams.
When he befriends a teenage prostitute who talks about becoming a singer (Chloë Grace Moretz), he hopes to inspire her, too. But her Russian pimp beats her, and McCall realizes talk won’t be enough. He slays the pimp and four henchmen and tries to resume his untroubled life, but he realizes that can’t happen: He’ll have to murder every member of the Russian mob he can find, including a heartless enforcer sent to hunt him (the quietly frightening Marton Csokas).
The film reunites Washington with “Training Day” director Antoine Fuqua, who holds his own excessive nature in check for a long time. Fuqua keeps the violence swift, savage and occasionally unseen, until an overlong, ridiculous bloodbath where villains get dispatched in disgusting ways. Then Wenk and Fuqua tack on another ending that overkills overkill.
Moretz disappears through a lot of the film, though she registers strongly in the early scenes. Csokas, given nothing to play but subdued menace, exudes it. So the movie would grind to a halt if Washington didn’t stride through it with unshakeable calm. His McCall has gone beyond fear, even beyond self-regard: He alternates easily between kindly confidant and killing machine and seems at home in both roles. What other 59-year-old actor could play this guy?