It was a good run, Liam Neeson. The 62-year-old who was Oskar Schindler and Alfred Kinsey spent the last seven years kicking the crap out of much younger bad guys in bone-crushing B-movies, best epitomized by the Taken films. But as of this past weekend, there’s a new sheriff in town. Two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington, one of the biggest movie stars of the past 25 years, and almost always, the coolest guy in the room, delivered his 12th No. 1 film, The Equalizer.
Directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), The Equalizer is a Neeson-ized adaptation of the 1980s CBS detective drama series that starred Edward Woodward. Washington plays Robert McCall, a former spy/assassin with a sentimental soul who puts his deadly skills back in action when the Russian mob steps on the neck of some of his poor Boston friends. The Equalizer is a Bourne film for your parents’ generation, a taut but straight-ahead thriller where the old guy not only dispatches Russian gangsters with a creative assortment of Home Depot style tools, but offers life-lessons to a younger generation that hangs on his every word of wisdom. The Equalizer grossed more than $34 million in its opening weekend, Washington’s third biggest debut ever, and a sequel is already on the drawing board.
At 59, Washington is just entering his Neeson-season prime, and the man who brought “geri-action”—to quote my colleague Hillary Busis—back in vogue, might suddenly have some serious competition.
In the Hollywood pecking order, Washington has an advantage over Neeson, but that doesn’t mean he’s immune to the same career temptations that have both revitalized and watered down Neeson’s career. Not long ago, Neeson was planning to reunite with Steven Spielberg for his Abraham Lincoln movie—what everyone assumed was perfect casting for the rugged 6’4″ actor and a sure Oscar nomination. But since dropping out of the prestigious project in 2009, Neeson settled back in to playing the wizened mentor in big-budget blockbusters and doubled-down on the success of Taken, which cast him as a 21st-century Charles Bronson, in a series of ass-kicking films, including The A-Team, Unknown, The Grey, Non-Stop, more Taken, and most recently, A Walk Among the Tombstones. Many of those modestly budgeted action films proved to be hits, making it extremely difficult to say no to more of them. (Taken 3 is due on Jan. 9.) Fortunately, for fans of Neeson’s less pulverizing work, he’s also currently working on J.A. Bayona’s Impossible follow-up, A Monster Calls, and is attached to Martin Scorsese’s “priests in the Far East drama,” Silence.
But does the box-office success of The Equalizer portend a similar sabbatical from prestige roles for Washington? To be fair, Washington has always had an affinity for a rock-solid shoot ’em up, and studios made a mint out of casting him in uninspired action vehicles with the faith that his star power alone would class them up. (I’m looking at you, Safe House, Man on Fire, and Deja Vu.) Even Training Day, the film that won him his Best Actor Oscar, leaned in this direction. In between, though, Washington would always remind us that there were some roles that only someone of his stratospheric talent and charisma could play, in films like Philadelphia, He Got Game, The Hurricane, and Flight. I always think back to an episode of Inside the Actors Studio, when Tom Hanks sheepishly but graciously honored his Philadelphia co-star by saying, “When I was sitting in the defendant’s table in the courtroom, the greatest acting lessons I have ever received was from those days [watching Washington], and I steal from him every day, in every performance, and this is the only time I’m ever going to give him credit.”
As Washington approaches 60, he’s entering that phase where even the greatest actors are inclined to coast—or at least find a creative cul-de-sac to finance that fourth home and private island. (Robert De Niro turned 60 in between Meet the Parents films; Jimmy Stewart turned 60 shortly after making a Western with Dean Martin and Raquel Welch.) In every regard, he’s technically earned that right to make whatever movie he wants, no matter if it fails to aim as high as previous career highlights. But 60 is also about the age when Paul Newman did The Verdict (57), when Gene Hackman (62) and Clint Eastwood (62) did Unforgiven, when Spencer Tracy did The Old Man and the Sea (58).
Washington and Fuqua are rumored to be collaborating again on a Magnificent Seven remake. Maybe it will be great. And Washington is planning to direct himself and Viola Davis in a big-screen adaptation of August Wilson’s Fences, the Broadway play that won both of them Tony Awards. So he’s not completely turning his back on ambitious personal projects. But just as a fan of Washington, I’d hate to have to sit through The Equalizer 4, knowing that the price of it was never seeing his Verdict, or his Unforgiven.