Our latest foray to the drive-in (on Friday, despite the title of this segment) was the Denzel Washington vehicle, The Equalizer 3. A drive-in quality movie for sure, I was kind of left thinking why one of America’s greatest actors would do a movie like this in the first place. A cheap-thrills, formulaic movie does not make for a bad use of a Friday night at the drive-in, but there are a finite number of movies Denzel has left to make, so I’m not sure how great a use this was of him.
There’s not much point spending too much time summarizing the plot: Denzel’s character is a badass on a mission, the exact nature of which we don’t learn until the end (it’s actually not even important to the main storyline, such as it is). In the process, Denzel gets shot and ends up recovering in the beautiful Italian town of Altemonte. There is a very good chance that the reason this movie was made was as an excuse for everyone involved to spend time in this town. Looking at it is one of the film’s highlights.
Anyway, it turns out that the mob has a stranglehold over the town and people who have been friendly to Denzel are getting hurt. So, badass that he is, Denzel takes on the mob and single-handedly kills them all. There’s a CIA subplot, a romantic subplot and a few other side stories, but it’s basically the old story of the underestimated stranger who strolls into town and liberates it from its oppressors. I read a review that compared the movie to a Western, which is right. It’s a Spaghetti Western. And that’s pretty much all you need to know about the plot.
That the story is as old as movies have been a thing demands some sort of new spin that this movie doesn’t deliver. I kept thinking of Clint Eastwood- he did a bunch of movies like this in the 60s and 70s, and then he used all that as a set up for Unforgiven, one of the great Westerns in part because it turned the tropes in their heads. The Equalizer 3 is not Unforgiven.
What it’s more like is any of those Liam Neeson movies where, in late middle age, another really good actor plays a one-dimensional killing machine. It’s also hard not to notice that of the action movies I’ve seen at the drive-in this year, Denzel Washington joined Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford as old men acting like young men (with near-superhuman physical skills).
So, what’s going on here? I think the basic problem is that this is a movie meant for someone like me, an aging man fantasizing about lost youth, but packaged for the summer movie crowd, which is dominated by younger people at the height of their physical powers. Unforgiven is a movie for grown-ups, this one isn’t. But I don’t know how many 15-year old boys are going to relate to 68-year old Denzel Washington.
But, OK, Denzel and Tom (61) and Harrison (80) give guys in their 50s like me reason to hope. And there is more going on in this specific movie. Going back to Clint Eastwood, think about the original Dirty Harry. Like this movie, that one is about one man who takes matters into his own hands. In that case, though, Harry did what the system as a whole could not in the aftermath of Warren Court decisions, politicians caring more about how they look than solving the problem and bureaucrats prioritizing procedures over results. Society put a straight jacket on itself allowing a singular maniac to run rampant. The solution? Dirty Harry breaks the rules.
Denzel doesn’t face a single foe exploiting society’s self-imposed restrictions. The mob is so permeated throughout all aspects of the Altamonte society, including the police as well as seemingly unrelated terrorists, that the mob is the system. Though we don’t find ourselves at this juncture for the first time, the fantasy here is that the aging guy is winning a fight against the whole world, which has arrayed all its resources against him. The middle aged guy is the protector of women, children and old men. People like me feel like our utility is fading, but a movie like this tells us it isn’t fading-it’s ignored. Denzel Washington echoes the clarion call that, “I alone can fix it.” So, yes, this is a Trumpian movie.
But, OK, it’s not overtly political. And it’s always a good time watching Denzel Washington. And the locations are really pretty. Once again, it would take more than this to ruin a night at the drive-in for me. Just don’t expect much more.