Director Antoine Fuqua, left, rehearses a stunt with Denzel Washington, center, and Alex Veadov on the set of 'The Equalizer.' Columbia Pictures
Vigilante characters who fight for the little guy arise in tough times. The Shadow, Batman, and Superman came to life during the Great Depression of the 1930s. In the 1970s, when urban crime seemed rampant, we got Charles Bronson wiping out hoodlums in "Death Wish" and its sequels and imitators. Now, in a world of turmoil, one surprising actor after another ( Scarlett Johansson ! Ben Affleck! Paul Rudd!) is pulling on the Spandex to save us from destruction as a comic-book superhero.
But not Denzel Washington.
"He doesn't have a cape on. He's just a guy doing the right thing," says director Antoine Fuqua, describing Mr. Washington's role in his urban-vigilante thriller "The Equalizer," which opens Sept. 26. Mr. Fuqua previously directed Mr. Washington to his Oscar for best actor in 2001's "Training Day."
In "The Equalizer," Mr. Washington fights on behalf of strangers. But he doesn't fly—or even run. He walks intently, at his own pace, as usual. As Robert McCall, he's a low-key employee at a home-improvement store. He spends his nights trying to read history's 100 greatest novels—a challenge his late wife never got to complete—in a glowing East Boston diner that the filmmakers created to look like Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" painting. When he sees that a perky teenage prostitute ( Chloë Grace Moretz ) who frequents the diner has been beaten by Russian gangsters, McCall figures it's time to uncloak his past as a trained government operative.
Working like a less-frantic Jason Bourne, he fights using available objects (in one scene he bashes a goon with a hardcover of Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man"). Mr. Washington, 59, does most of his own moves.
"Denzel boxes every day. We box at the same place," Mr. Fuqua says. "So if you look at some of the movement, he's blocking and punching. He just happens to be using a corkscrew sometimes."
"16 Blocks," says producers Todd Black and Jason Blumenthal gave him advice about writing for Mr. Washington.
"They told me, 'Be very sparse with your words,' " he recalls. "When we were in Boston during preproduction, Denzel would sit at my desk, and we'd go through the script, and he would do just what they said he would. He would take out words, take out phrases. He would say, 'I don't need to say that, I can play that.' "
The film is based loosely on the 1980s TV series "The Equalizer," about a former operative seeking to help people, possibly to atone for nasty things he did as an agent. It also comes in the tradition of "Death Wish," which by coincidence was Mr. Washington's first feature film at age 19. (He played a mugger whom Mr. Bronson blew away early in the movie. Jeff Goldblum also made his debut in the film as the punk who murders Mr. Bronson's wife, and Christopher Guest had a tiny role as a city cop.)
Movie crusaders come in different stripes. Most common are protagonists taking the law into their own hands to hunt down just one perpetrator, in it for themselves. In "Taken" (2008) Liam Neeson is desperate to rescue his daughter and punish those who kidnapped her. In "High Plains Drifter" (1973), Clint Eastwood gets cruel revenge on a whole town.
Rarer are good guys who pursue justice for all. In "The Boondock Saints" (1999), twin brothers Connor and Murphy MacManus just want to get the creeps out of their south Boston neighborhood, and the local cops don't mind. Near the start of that movie, a church monsignor preaches that the worst evil is "the indifference of good men" in the face of evil, and Connor says to his brother: "I do believe the monsignor's finally got the point."
Mr. Washington has been down this road before, sort of, playing a mysterious nomad in the post-apocalyptic "The Book of Eli" (2010). In that movie, he's on a particular mission but punishing wrongdoers along the way. "You are gonna be held accountable for the things you have done," he says to a gang member who has been murdering travelers, after smashing his teeth.
Mr. Washington's motivation here isn't so obvious. "I have a whole story in my head of where he came from and what happened," Mr. Wenk says, "but every time I wrote a draft and put anything specific in it, my eyes sort of dulled. I felt like, ugh, this feels like something I've seen in every movie. So I kept cutting things out until there was nothing, just hints of a past." The screenwriter says it goes back to one of his favorite movies, "Shane," the 1953 western where Alan Ladd rides into town and reluctantly ends up helping. "You don't know where he came from. There's no specifics. I loved that mystery to it, so I wouldn't have to explain very much. "
The bad guys here are Russians, including a boss named "Vladimir Pushkin." Russian mobsters and oligarchs seem to be the movie-villain flavor of the year, nudging out urban gangs and Colombian drug cartels and Middle Eastern terrorists.
"Originally there were rogue CIA guys," Mr. Wenk says. "Even as the script left my hands, I kept saying to myself, that feels tired, I've seen it before. And Denzel's only note was: Get rid of the CIA guys. I learned a big lesson from [director] Dick Donner on '16 Blocks,' which is that it doesn't really matter who they are. As long as we know they're bad."