Denzel Washington has been acting in movies longer than I’ve been alive. His first movie released in theaters, 1981’s Carbon Copy, carries the following logline on IMDB: “A white corporate executive (George Segal) is surprised to discover that he has a black teen-age son (Washington) who can’t wait to be adopted into the, almost-exclusively-white community of, San Marino, California.” And hilarity ensues, or one assumes as much at least. Since then, he logged time as a regular cast member of St. Elsewhere, and starred in movies like Malcolm X (’92), The Pelican Brief (’93), Philadelphia (’93), Crimson Tide (’95), The Hurricane (’99), Training Day (’01), American Gangster (’07) and Flight (’12). Somehow, across that long career he never found the time to make a sequel, but then last year’s The Equalizer scored the fourth best debut in September history (trailing just Hotel Transylvania, Insidious Chapter 2, and Sweet Home Alabama). On the talk show tour, Washington insisted a sequel was a possibility if The Equalizer made enough money. In fact, Sony had already put a sequel into development months before the film’s release, and yesterday Exhibitor Relations revealed on Twitter:
First off, they’re just kidding about “The Sequalizer” part of the title, but the release date is real – Equalizer 2 has planted its flag on 9/29/17, meaning it will arrive nearly 3 years to the day after the first one. This sequel was technically already announced last year, but this is the first time we’re seeing an actual release date, which usually makes this kind of thing feel more official. Washington will return, but beyond that we don’t know if the director (Antoine Fuqua) or other cast members (Chloe Grace Moretz, Bill Pullman, Melissa Leo, etc.) will be involved as well.
This has to be considered a real victory for Tom Rothman, the new President of Sony Pictures, which is currently in last place in market share among all major studios, tied with mini-major and Hunger Games producer Lionsgate. Part of the problem is that Sony has very few film franchises beyond Hotel Translyvania, Smurfs, 21 Jump Street and Men in Black. Their two biggies, Spider-Man and James Bond, are in precarious spots right now, the former loaned out to Marvel Studios and the latter due to become a free agent after Spectre comes out later this year. Another studio could outbid Sony and gobble up future 007 projects. So, The Equalizer was always an attempt to add another franchise to the Sony roster, which is similarly motivating the forthcoming Ghostbusters re-boot. Kudos to them for actually succeeding (i.e., making what appeared to be yet another Taken knock-off) where so many have failed. All told, The Equalizer grossed $192 million worldwide on a $55 million production budget.
Of course, The Equalizer actually began its life as a 1980s drama about a retired intelligence officer who provides services as a protector and an investigator, free of charge, to people in trouble. When Joss Whedon co-created the Buffy the Vampire Slayer spin-off series Angel in 1999, in which a reformed vampire “helps the helpless,” he took to jokingly referring to it as “Touched by an Equalizer.” However, there was nothing to joke about in The Equalizer film, in which Washington played a retired black ops agent who kicked ass like a far more violent McGyver when the Russian mob threatened a local young girl he had befriended (Chloe Grace Moretz). The climax of the film takes place in a darkly lit hardware store, showcasing some brutally inventive kills (one poor sob never saw that nail gun coming).
Back when The Equalizer was still in theaters, there were many who couldn’t fully understand why the film, with its poor reviews and apparent non-existent pre-release buzz, had such a big opening and overall healthy run at the box office. Sony’s efforts to court African Americans via the placement of an exclusive Eminem song on the soundtrack as well as endorsements from professional athletes (Michael Strahan, Dwight Howard, and Tiger Woods) certainly paid some dividends. However, that didn’t explain everything, especially not when other Taken knock-offs like 3 Days to Kill had flopped. The answer appeared to be that Denzel Washington’s name above any film title could still sell tickets.
In an age of the brand-as-the-selling-point, Denzel has been the only one to consistently keep the old model of the movie-star-as-the-selling-point alive. If you discount The Great Debaters since he’s just a supporting character in that, Denzel’s had 12-straight movie open north of $20m, dating back to 2004’s Man on Fire. For older audiences who remember the movie star days of the 90s, a new Denzel movie can always be counted on for a certain level of quality and entertainment. Simply put, Denzel is his own brand, helped considerably the fact that to this point in his career he’s never ventured over into comic book territory (technically, 2 Guns is a graphic novel-adaptation, though) or sequels.
So many times over the past couple of years the box office has taught us that star power isn’t as important as it used to be, with prior sure things like Will Smith struggling to open something like Focus and taking a role in a DC comic book movie. Denzel always stood out as being somehow immune to all of this. Him starring in Equalizer 2 in late 2017 doesn’t necessarily change that. However, it does at least seem a little significant because, damn, he went nearly four full decades before making the first sequel of his career. Incidentally, you once could have said something similar about Robert Downey, Jr., who debuted on film in 1984 and didn’t make his first sequel until 2010, or Johnny Depp, who similarly debuted in 1984 and didn’t star in a sequel until 2003.