Director Antoine Fuqua had his head in the ring when making “The Equalizer,” in which Denzel Washington plays an agile, AARP-eligible vigilante.
“I have been boxing for 15 years, and Denzel has been for 20, and I knew, because I have seen him move, there were certain things he can use” in action scenes, Fuqua said last week in a telephone interview.
Washington, 59, plays Robert McCall, a home-improvement store employee with a special-ops past. McCall is trying to live a quiet, nonviolent life when he becomes friendly with a teenage prostitute (Chloë Grace Moretz) who frequents the same 24-hour diner he does.
When the girl’s pimp beats her up, McCall’s past life comes to the fore. That life entails an ability to suss out a room filled with gangsters (a 1970s-style exploitation movie at heart, “Equalizer” offers cultural stereotypes on Aisle 3, next to the hammers) while setting his watch’s timer to clock the mere seconds it will take to dispatch the baddies.
Fuqua, reuniting with Washington for the first time since directing him to a best-actor Oscar in 2001’s “Training Day,” considered professional boxers he knows, like Sugar Ray Leonard, when presenting McCall’s calm demeanor in chaotic settings.
“A boxer must be relaxed in a stressful situation,” Fuqua said. “You can’t be tense, because you are preserving your energy.”
McCall also shares skill sets and steady-in-a-storm traits with previous Fuqua protagonists, such as Navy SEAL Bruce Willis in “Tears of the Sun” and ex-Marine Corps sniper Mark Wahlberg in “Shooter.” But McCall’s similarity to those characters – or to Washington’s revenge-driven bodyguard in Tony Scott’s “Man on Fire” – ends with their likelihood to bring guns to a gunfight.
McCall might pick up a bad guy’s gun if it’s handy, but he goes into skirmishes armed only with fists, smarts and MacGyver-esque improvisational skills. The home-improvement store’s goods come into play, but McCall also makes do with what’s available off site, like the corkscrew he puts to grisly use in the Russians’ clubhouse.
Rather than obscure the movie’s violence with the hyperkinetic editing typical of modern action films, Fuqua revealed its details.
“I preferred to shoot and edit (action scenes) just like it was a dialogue scene – a very violent dialogue scene,” Fuqua said. “I wanted to show the performance within the action.”
“The Equalizer,” which takes little from the ’80s TV show beyond its premise, develops McCall as a person before he becomes an enforcer. A widower who lives in a sparsely furnished, spotless apartment and cleans his athletic shoes before each work shift, McCall spends his down time reading classic novels and helping an overweight colleague trying to pass a fitness test by putting him on a strict diet and exercise plan.
His fellow home-store employees suspect there’s more to this guy in dad jeans than he lets on, but McCall brushes off their questions with that dazzling Washington grin.
The role suits an actor of Washington’s caliber because McCall is a man capable of great brutality “who is also this compassionate person,” Fuqua said.
Moodily and thoughtfully shot before the blood starts spurting, “Equalizer” is part comic-book origin story and part “Dirty Harry,” with Charles Bronson and Sam Peckinpah hovering around its edges.
“In that era, the directors got to take their time a little bit more, and with characters who had lived a little,” Fuqua said of his film’s 1970s influences. “They weren’t perfect, and they weren’t all 22 years old. Most of them were established men, and you believed them because they had life experience.”
But 1970s vigilante films never presented their heroes as artfully as this one does. Fuqua shows off his composition skills with wee-hour diner scenes (the production turned a flooring store into a diner for the film’s Boston shoot) that carry the lonesome look of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” painting.
Fuqua acknowledged Hopper as “a reference” for the scenes’ production design and cinematography. Fuqua shot Washington, as McCall, from outside the diner’s windows to symbolize a man “trying to live in half-worlds,” the director said. “He is not fully engaged in this world, but he is in the diner every morning, trying a little bit to engage.” Before the attack on Moretz’s character forces him to engage.
Fuqua, 48, lives in Los Angeles with his wife, actress Lela Rochon, with whom he has three children. He and Washington might reteam for a “Magnificent Seven” remake. Before that, he will finish his Showtime documentary on rap mogul Suge Knight. Fuqua said he is considering how to incorporate the August incident in which Knight was shot six times (but survived and left the hospital only days later) into the doc before it is due to Showtime at year’s end.
Fuqua has finished shooting “Southpaw,” a narrative feature that’s about boxing rather than just boxing-inflected. The film, written by “Sons of Anarchy” creator Kurt Sutter, stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a fighter on the rise.
In researching the movie, “I got to go to all the (top) fights, and we trained in the (Floyd) Mayweather gym,” Fuqua said, his voice brightening at the memory.
Fuqua erected a boxing ring in his office during “Southpaw’s” Pittsburgh shoot. The director and his cast, including Rachel McAdams and Forest Whitaker, worked out in the ring during down times on location, Fuqua said.
As a drama without thriller elements, “Southpaw” is uncharacteristic of the director’s work. But for Fuqua, the ring offers enough thrills on its own.
“I love the sport,” he said.