Even Denzel Washington’s latest action movie recognizes the end of an era and adjusts accordingly.
Remember those heady days in the early 2010s when it seemed like every 60-year-old actor was primed for their own action vehicle? When audiences would flock to see movies headlined by Liam Neeson and Denzel Washington, not out of respect for their talent as actors, but from a desire to watch them punch people in the throat with guns? Washington’s The Equalizer was a particularly curious result of this movement. Set against a landscape of superhero movies and a dying trend of elderly action movies, The Equalizer was also a film caught straddling two eras of action films. And while The Equalizer 2 is a far-worse movie than its predecessor, it serves as a useful measurement of just how much things have changed.
Back in 2013, Vulture’s Matt Patches coined the phrase ‘Geri-Action’ to describe the trend of retirement-age action stars. Like many critics, Patches contrasted the mainstream resurgence of actors like Bruce Willis to the rising popularity of superhero movies across Hollywood. As licensed characters became more important than the actors playing them, studios capitalized on this star power void by reintroducing some of the biggest names of the ’80s and ’90s. “We watch action movies for the visceral pleasure that comes from an actor or actress pushing themselves physically,” Patches wrote, noting that “age adds to the audience’s satisfaction” when seeing someone like Sylvester Stallone throw down as a 64-year-old in The Expendables. Not dramatic enough? FlavorWire critic Alexander Huls took this resurgence one step further that same year, arguing that this wave of action films was in direct response to the creeping obsolescence of the Boomer generation. Their rediscovered action stars gave them new life in turn.
And the formula worked, at least for a while. Liam Neeson’s Taken grossed $226 million worldwide in 2008; Bruce Willis’s Red, which leaned even harder into the conceit of retired super-soldiers, made $199 million just two years later. Then came the Sylvester Stallone ’80s party that was The Expendables ($274 million), Denzel Washington’s first Equalizer film ($192 million), and countless one-offs and sequels to the already successful franchises. Even Taken 3, a film that had critics calling for an end to the very idea of a geri-action movie, grossed more than $300 million worldwide. Even as these films began to lag behind domestically, there was still more than enough international love for actors like Liam Neeson to keep the franchises afloat for a few more sequels.
Then the current era of franchise movies kicked into high gear. It’s not a coincidence that movies like Taken dominated the box office in the early days of the Marvel Cinematic Universes; when studios released their tentpole films at an average of once a year, there was still plenty of room for smaller action movies to navigate the box office. Now, however, the cycle of superhero movies and franchised releases control the release calendar. We’ve already seen movies like Deadpool 2, Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp, and Solo dominate the conversation in 2018; movies like The Equalizer 2 are relegated to counter-programming, fitting neatly into lulls in the release calendar between high-profile studio films. We’ve gone from arguing over which actor deserves his or her own action franchise to which actor deserves a mentor role in a Marvel movie.
To its credit, The Equalizer 2 is very aware of its place in this new trend. Whereas the first film positioned Washington’s Robert McCall as yet-another past-his-prime assassin – his penchant for timing himself during action sequences shows that he’s lost a step, but his instincts and preparation more than make up for his dulled reaction speed – The Equalizer 2 downplays his age in favor of more robust action sequences. This McCall is once more clearing rooms before his watch chimes; references to McCall’s age have been replaced by a myriad of fast-paced action sequences, culminating in a rooftop fight that features perhaps the most egregious stunt double work of Washington’s entire career. The film even ends with a direct nod to its big-budget competition, with McCall’s young protege flashing his art skills by drawing Washington’s character as a modern day superhero.
It’s an odd choice. Like Matt Patches suggested in his Vulture piece, the biggest appeal of these movies is watching actors push back old age for at least one more movie; this is the logic that has made Mission: Impossible – Fallout one of the most-anticipated movies of the summer (even if that particular franchise seems to exist in its own bubble beyond the concerns of superheroes and AARP members alike). Over the past few years, we’ve even watched Washington take on roles (Fences, Roman J. Israel, Esq.) that directly engage with his age and position as an elder statesman of Hollywood. Here his celebrity works against the movie, undermining the type of action sequences we’ve come to expect from a movie of The Equalizer 2‘s ilk. Do we really want to see Washington playing at being 35 again?
Maybe that’s the one thing that The Equalizer 2 gets right, though. Geri-Action movies had their moment in the sun; now the only thing audiences want from their big-budget movies is the promise of Herculean feats of violence, even if your protagonist is played by a 62-year-old institution who doesn’t seem interested in going the full Tom Cruise each time out. The international star power of actors like Denzel Washington and Liam Neeson isn’t going to dry up overnight, of course – that’s why a film like The Commuter can still make $83 million overseas – but the idea that an ageless action icon is proper justification for an action movie seems increasingly like a thing of the past. It’s a lot easier to sell an action movie when everyone is a superhero.