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film review

In The Equalizer Denzel Washington has hyper-observant powers and kung-fu movie reflexes McCall.Scott Garfield

Denzel Washington turns 60 this year and the release of The Equalizer seems as good a time as any to consider the Meaning of Denzel: the screen's most prominent African-American leading man of the past 30 years, with his reserved manner and stony gaze and disarming overbite. Denzel, out there making things more Equal.

A sequel to The Equalizer, a Sequelizer if you like, is already in the works, and while Denzel may seem a little mature to be kicking off a new movie franchise, there's a current movie vogue for sexagenarians kicking butt: Sixty-two-year-old Liam Neeson is planning his third Taken movie next year, Pierce Brosnan, 61, just did the action flick The November Man, and Sly Stallone, 68, is still stripping down and strapping on in The Expendables series.

Bring on the sequel please, because, as fine as Denzel is, director Antoine Fuqua's The Equalizer is not so good – a self-consciously stylized, stop-and-start hodgepodge of Death Wish street vengeance, Bond-style Russian villainy, and moodily shot Boston locale. The movie is adapted from an eighties television series, starring English actor Edward Woodward as a kind of modern knight, a retired intelligence officer who helps people in trouble, which in turn was modelled on the sixties series Have Gun – Will Travel.

Giving Denzel two meshing sides to his persona – the reserved and noble, and the calculating and violent – is a good fit.

The most important part of the adaptation is that the hero Robert McCall's social status has been downgraded.

In the adaptation by Richard Wenk (16 Blocks, The Expendables 2), Robert works as a companionable employee at a Home Depot-style box store where he's a good buddy with the other staff and rides the bus (Woodward's Robert McCall drove a Jag). Robert is a widower who lives in a stripped-down apartment and shows certain obsessive-compulsive tendencies (a routine with a teabag) and can't sleep at night. He goes to a diner straight out of an Edward Hopper painting, occupies the same booth and reads a series of thematically on-the-nose great books: Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, Cervantes's Don Quixote, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man.

His well-controlled isolation ends when he takes a paternal interest in a teenaged prostitute named Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz, referencing Jodie Foster's wardrobe in Taxi Driver). One evening, Teri is taken away by her Russian pimp and ends up in hospital after a beating, then mostly disappears from the film. Robert decides to track down the culprits in the escort service they run above a restaurant.

He meets with five of them and meekly asks if he can pay them to get Teri out of prostitution and, of course, they mock him. Heavy violence ensues, involving sharp objects, and we realize Robert has hyperobservant powers and kung-fu movie reflexes, and leaves the Russians' hideout looking like it has been hit with a borscht bomb.

And the battle is on. The Russian gangsters, who also seem to control most of the Boston police force, are naturally concerned. They call on their most lethal assassin, named, of course, "Teddy" (Marton Csokas), a sharp-dressing psychopath who assembles an army to get rid of this pesky hardware store employee.

As Robert recognizes that he's into something deep, he calls on some highly placed friends (Melissa Leo and Bill Pullman) for help – and we finally get the lowdown on Robert's previous life. In saving one teenaged prostitute, it seems Robert has upset the highest echelons of Russian crime, an oligarch coyly named Vladimir Pushkin.

In this extended, bloody game of cat and mouse (think The Simpsons' Itchy and Scratchy), there's never any sense that Washington's character is in any real jeopardy, or that the Russian criminals are much more than so much splatter-fodder. Yet there are pleasures here, mostly in watching Washington's psychological gamesmanship, which is another way of saying acting.

Robert's race is never mentioned in The Equalizer but there's a telling restaurant scene where Robert echoes Teddy's question back to him: "What do you see when you look at me?"

The answer, for Robert, is a working-class, middle-aged black man, something like the "invisible man" of Ellison's 1952 novel. He's not someone you expect to have super-perception or James Bond connections. Which brings us back to the meaning of Denzel.

Washington, who cut his teeth on Broadway in the African-American theatre boom of the late seventies, became famous in the 1980s with a supporting role for six seasons on the critically-praised St. Elsewhere. Handsome, reserved and shyly flirtatious, Washington capitalized on his TV exposure with a series of racially-sensitive "important" roles, including his Oscar-winning turn in Glory, in the apartheid drama Cry Freedom, and in a familiar inner-city principal film, Hard Lessons. In the process, he emerged as his generation's leading African-American actor, handsome enough to be considered the heir to Sidney Poitier (whom he consulted for career advice). A key turning point was Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues (1990), as a self-centred, two-timing jazz musician, Bleek Gilliam (modelled on trumpeter Miles Davis). The church-going, reserved Washington found some aspects of the role outside his comfort zone – he and Lee clashed over the sex scenes – but Lee predicted, accurately, that "this role will free Denzel from playing these great, heroic, stoic types." (Tellingly, Washington followed the part immediately by starring in the title role of Richard III, directed by Joseph Papp.) Lee's Malcolm X showed Washington's full range, fiery and cool at once, but his most successful calculation came in choosing to play significant supporting roles in mainstream films opposite white stars: Reporter Gray Grantham in the screen version of The Pelican Brief opposite Julia Roberts, and then as the homophobic lawyer Joe Miller who takes on the wrongful dismissal case of AIDS patient Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) in Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia and a co-starring performance with Gene Hackman in the action thriller Crimson Tide.

Of his work in the late nineties, Norman Jewison's The Hurricane (1999), about Reuben (Hurricane) Carter's fight for freedom after being twice convicted for a triple murder, was probably Washington's best shot at an Oscar. Unfortunately for Washington, the film ran up against a vigorous anti-Oscar backlash from those who believed Carter was guilty. His Oscar reward came two years later with Fuqua's Training Day, as Detective Alonzo Harris, an L.A. cop gone seriously rogue.

Training Day was the first truly malevolent character in Washington's career, and an important breakthrough.

In the current century, through his middle years, Washington has mixed it up smartly, balancing the good-guy inspirational parts (The Great Debaters, Remember the Titans), against those complicated anti-hero roles – American Gangster, Man on Fire, Safe House and Flight.

With The Equalizer, he has found a place where his noble side, the knight without armour, the rescuer of the downtrodden, can meet the guy who likes inflicting some pain, and playing head games on those who underestimate him. So chalk The Equalizer up to a shaky start. More and better Equalizers will be welcome, just to watch Denzel finding new ways of getting even.