Action flicks these days aren’t solely the domain anymore of chiseled, one-note actors like Van Damme, Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Statham (although those icons have found a home in The Expendables series). Now the leading men of the best “actioners,” as they’re known in Variety-speak, are heavy-hitting thespians like Liam Neeson and Denzel Washington, whose acting chops elevate the genre to a whole new level. In The Equalizer, for example – his newest – Denzel brings compelling depth to a character that might be one-dimensional in lesser hands: a chivalric hero in a world without knights.
MILD SPOILERS AHEAD
Denzel (and let’s face it, he has reached the stratosphere of one-name celebrity now, like Sting or Madonna) plays Robert McCall, a quiet, mysterious loner whose unassuming demeanor belies his devastatingly bloody special ops training. Living like a monk while working at a Home Depot-type store, the widowed McCall flies under everyone’s radar.
McCall confesses that he had once done bad things that he wasn’t proud of, but he promised his now-deceased wife that “I would never go back to being that person.” And indeed, he now lives by such an honorable code that he chides acquaintances about things like swearing and eating junk food. But he is supportive and inspiring as well: he helps coach a hapless coworker to become a security guard, for example, and he encourages the dream of a singing career for a young Russian call girl he has befriended at the local coffee shop, where he hangs out during sleepless nights. Coming to the aid of this damsel in distress brings down the wrath of the ruthless Russian mafia – but they, like everyone else, underestimate McCall.
McCall is also a big reader, working his way through a list of the 100 Best Books. At one point the call girl sees him with a new book and asks what it’s about. “It is about a guy who is a knight in shining armor,” McCall replies, “except he lives in a world where knights don’t exist anymore.”
Though the title is never mentioned, it’s clear even from this short description that the classic he is reading is Don Quixote, the massive novel by Miguel de Cervantes published in two parts, in 1605 and 1615. The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha (its full title) is considered the grandest monument of literature in Spanish and an extraordinarily influential work of modern Western literature. In 2002, 100 major writers from 54 countries voted Don Quixote the best work of fiction in the world. It has been translated into more languages than any book but the Bible.
The book was written and set in an era after the high point of chivalry in the Middle Ages; the knightly class in which that ideal flourished had essentially died out, and the world moved on. But Don Quixote was a man so obsessed with tales of knightly heroism that he made it his mission to “travel the four corners of the earth in search of adventures on behalf of those in need, this being the office of chivalry and of knights errant.” Through him, he felt, chivalry would be reborn.
The point of the Don Quixote reference in the movie, of course, is that McCall is himself a knight in shining armor, in a world in which chivalry is scorned by men and women alike and knights are in short supply. Even the cops in this flick are corrupt, which infuriates McCall; after delivering a serious beatdown, he lectures them about having dishonored their badge and having failed “to protect and to serve” – a motto which could easily have been derived from the medieval chivalric code. That code emphasized service, the defense of the defenseless, and – as one 19th century writer put it – “always and everywhere to be right and good against evil and injustice.”
Don Quixote may have been tilting insanely at windmills, imagining them to be dragons, but Robert McCall puts himself between very real evil and the innocents he feels compelled to defend. He does it because “to protect and to serve” is in his nature, and because it’s the right thing to do. At least one critic complained that the movie’s “sense of good and evil is a little too clear cut,” but in a jaded world too often awash in moral ambiguity, it’s refreshing to see a character who harks back to the uncompromising, selfless heroism of an earlier time.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 10/20/14)