This weekend brings “The Equalizer,” which finds Denzel Washington taking on the ’80s TV role Edward Woodward once essayed — a mysterious commoner who moonlights as a helpful avenger. Why is a two-time Oscar-winner going around killing people with butter knives and power drills? Must every respected thespian over 50 go full Neeson? Washington joins not only the seriously swelling gang of over-the-hill action stars, but another group: respected actors who did super trashy revenge movies. Here’s who else is in this one:
‘Fighting Back’ (1981)
Avenger: Tom Skerritt
Granted, Skerritt isn’t one of the absolute greats. He is very good, though, and definitely deserves better than a low-budget, grimy little number about a South Philly deli owner who starts killing the street thugs who’ve turned his neighborhood into a cesspool. Thing is, Skerritt wasn’t misused. This isn’t another vigilante grinder but a stealth parody of same — a satire in which white people in a racially mixed neighborhood only wind up hurting and soon killing black people, eventually turning into full-on psychos. It’s designed to play to blood-hungry crowds and chuckling eggheads alike.
‘Johnny Handsome’ (1989)
Avenger: Mickey Rourke
By 1989, Rourke was firmly in the doghouse, his early promise faded, his reputation sullied by dodgy choices like “9 ½ Weeks.” (This wasn’t deserved; “Barfly” was only two years prior.) He wound up working with Walter Hill, no stranger to immaculately sculpted junk cinema, in easily his nuttiest film. Years before he’d destroy his face with an ill-judged boxing career and worse-judged plastic surgery, Rourke played a hood with a grossly disfigured face. After being set-up by his colleagues (Ellen Barkin and Lance Henriksen), he winds up in jail, where a brilliant surgeon (Forest Whittaker) agrees to fix his face into a beaut befitting ’80s Mickey Rourke — and allowing him, once freed, to more easily sneak into the graces of those who wronged him. This movie is nuts, even before an unhinged Morgan Freeman shows up.
Avenger: Liam Neeson
The former Oskar Schindler turned heads when, in his mid-to-late-50s, he started churning out Bronsonesque asskickers. It's as though he hadn’t done it before, well before he was a known and respected thespian. Sam Raimi tapped him to wrap a dirty bandage around his face as a brilliant scientist turned into a superhero who can’t feel pain, out to avenge the mobsters (led by “L.A. Law”’s Larry Drake) who very nearly burned him to death. Oddly, even with relative youth at his command, Neeson’s Darkman can be clumsy. He got smoother and more deadly once he could collect an AARP card. (It's also worth noting that, a couple years prior to this he was a pony-tailed slimeball in the final Dirty Harry entry, "The Dead Pool.")
Avenger: Kevin Costner
This isn’t pure trash, but something much more fun: Big budget, hyper-stylish trash starring the then-biggest star in the world. It thinks big in every way: Not only is it clearly expensive, it goes farther than even the dirtiest genre movie. After Costner’s Navy pilot is caught having super-hot sex with Madeline Stowe, the hot wife of Anthony Quinn’s crime boss, Quinn doesn’t kill either of them. Instead he kills Costner’s dog, leaves Costner beaten in the desert, then has Stowe repeatedly raped, dumps her in a whorehouse and has her injected with HIV. Costner’s next movie was “Dances with Wolves.”
Avenger: Nicolas Cage
We would expect Cage — an eccentric sometime-genius and deserved Oscar-winning actor who is in serious financial trouble and is also eccentric — to crank out dirty revenge movies. Instead he hasn’t. But he did a high-toned trashy revenge picture back when he was still treated as an unblemished critical commodity. In one of his sleepiest roles, he plays a detective investigating into a snuff film, which ends with him — again, sleepily — taking down the filth merchants who made it.
‘Kill Bill’ (2003-2004)
Avenger: Uma Thurman
Quentin Tarantino’s name has long been a shorthand for over-the-top violence, but “Kill Bill” was his first (and only) straight-up genre movie — or rather, it was a pastiche of many kinds of genre movies, stacked on top of each other for over four hours. Thurman, who had previously simply played a coke-loving mafia moll in “Pulp Fiction,” got her workout, but the film and her performance isn’t just about being badass. Especially in “Vol. 2,” Thurman gets to do righteously angry and even deeply despaired, grieving for the daughter she thought was dead then overjoyed upon learning she’s alive.
‘Man on Fire’ (2004)
Avenger: Denzel Washington
With “The Equalizer,” Washington gets to rough up people who rough people up. Thing is, he already did that, and even more cartoonishly violent, in this noxious if amusingly OTT revenge picture, in which he’s alkie bodyguard reacts to the murder of his young charge (Dakota Fanning) by brutally murdering everyone involved, including shoving a bomb up one guy’s rectum, walking away and lettering ’er literally rip. At least in “The Equalizer” the worst someone gets is a rock glass in the eye. (Fun fact: Washington’s screen debut was an uncredited appearance as a street thug in the original “Death Wish.”)
‘The Brave One’ (2007)
Avenger: Jodie Foster
It’s still not clear why no less an esteemed thespian than Jodie Foster decided to do a movie that’s about as ambiguous about vengeance as any “Death Wish” entry. After her husband is murdered by creeps, her public radio host gets a gun and takes to the streets; think of her as a pissed and armed to the teeth Terry Gross. One keeps waiting for some nuance or self-reflection, but the movie — directed by another respected artist, Neil Jordan (“The Crying Game”) — stays Cro-Magnon throughout.
‘Harry Brown’ (2009)
Avenger: Old Michael Caine
Caine is no stranger to total trash. (He was stuck shooting “Jaws: The Revenge” when he won his “Hannah and Her Sisters” Oscar.) But like “The Brave One,” this straight-up eye-for-an-eye thriller forever seems like it’s about to get enlightened. It never does. Caine brings gravity and weariness to his role as an old-timer taking on the neighborhood punks. But all he’s doing is giving undeserved depth to a dumb-as-rocks and more-than-vaguely offensive movie about killing lower class creeps like one would roaches.
Bonus: Trashy revenge movies with overqualified supporting casts
Mark Twain’s finest impersonator, Hal Holbrook, pops up as the main baddie in the second Dirty Harry picture, “Magnum Force.” “The Boondock Saints” is proudly pro-civilians-gunning-down-unprosecuted-perps, yet features Willem Dafoe as an operatic detective who hunts the boring antiheroes down. The avenger in “Law Abiding Citizen” is junk cinema staple Gerard Butler, but the real protagonist is respectable Jamie Foxx, while no less than Viola Davis, as the mayor, does her darndest to seem like she’s doing something respectable.
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