Last week I sat in a lit, crowded multiplex theater near Times Square, awaiting a preview screening of “The Equalizer,” director Antoine Fuqua’s big-screen adaptation of the ’80s TV series. A few minutes before the movie began, a couple of 20-somethings next to me got into a discussion about what they were about to see. “So is this, like, a highly rated movie?” one asked. “I dunno,” his friend replied, then added: “It’s a new Denzel movie.”
What exactly is a “Denzel movie”? In 2014, it means the Hollywood star, now nearly 60, being a bad-ass. Lots of gun-wielding, fistfights, killings; some scenes of torture; maybe an explosion here and there. The stakes are improbably high, and the star navigates them sporting his familiar, undeniably cool demeanor and trademark megawatt grin. You’ll find all of this in “The Equalizer,” in which Denzel – and of course he is “Denzel” to all of us, not “Washington” – plays a former Special Forces soldier who comes out of retirement to save a young prostitute from a predictably tattoo-adorned Russian mob.
The formula is clearly working – he’s one of the few major Hollywood players of the ’80s and ’90s who’s still a consistently bankable star. He certainly doesn’t look like he’s approaching his seventh glorious decade on Earth, and his box office clout has only grown. Out of his last 17 films, only three have made less than $50 million; most have made upward of $70 million. Compare that to his career prior to 2000, where all but six of his films fell below $50 million.
But is this how we hope the greatest film actor of his generation spends his time? Denzel isn’t Will Smith, who has always been vocal about his desire to be the biggest movie star in the world.
Denzel was that very rare contemporary Hollywood star, the kind who simultaneously graced Sexiest Man Alive lists and Oscar ballots, even winning a couple in the process. Rarer still, he did it all while being black, carrying the baton handed to him by Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, running with it gracefully. And now, in “The Equalizer,” he’s playing a half-baked variation of the “retired gunfighter” trope in a junky action movie. Denzel deserves better.
Unlike early Robert De Niro or Al Pacino, Denzel rarely “disappears” into his roles; even when he’s taking on as larger-than-life a figure as Malcolm X, you’re always aware that you’re watching Denzel onscreen. His cadence is comfortingly familiar; that megawatt smile, often punctuating moments of intense moral seriousness, is instantly recognizable. In this way he was one of our few great actors who was also, effortlessly, a movie star.
Yet Denzel is now approaching the status of aging action hero, an elite but mildly pathetic club that includes Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. What’s especially weird about this career arc is that he came to the party late – Stallone and the rest of the club began and made their careers as action heroes and never really left, so it’s unsurprising that they would try to rekindle the fire well into old age.
In this career left turn Denzel most closely resembles Liam Neeson, another dramatic, invigorating performer who’s turned to a steady diet of action (anti-)heroes later in his career. As with Neeson’s, Denzel’s ride has been fun at times, but surely this is not the only side of him fans want to see from now on. (There’s even talk of “The Equalizer” serving as the introduction of a franchise, which would be a first for Denzel – who, despite repeating himself many, many times over the last few years, has never made a sequel.)
And of course Denzel has earned the right to make action movies if that’s what he’s happy doing. Sometimes, when he’s in that rare exceptional one, like “Inside Man,” it’s thrilling. But he could stand to take a page from his contemporary, Jeff Bridges. Only a few years older than Denzel, Bridges has invigorated his career by dabbling in indies (“Crazy Heart”), prestige flicks (“True Grit”), and paycheck roles (“Iron Man”). He too has crafted a persona over the years, just like Denzel, but he’s found varied shades of that persona in different kinds of films.
Denzel should do the same. He’s more than proven to us that he can be our hero. Now it’s time to remind us of the days when he was a complicated, interesting human being, albeit a much cooler, better-looking one than most.