All things being equal

Inside a classic Denzel Washington versus

Liam Neeson box office match-up

Photo: Liam Neeson in “A Walk Among the Toombstones.”

This past weekend featured a tantalizing match-up of box office power punchers, with the debut of Denzel Washington’s first franchise starter “The Equalizer” against the second week of Liam Neeson’s “A Walk Among the Tombstones.” Alright, this was a slightly unfair face-to-face, since “Tombstones” stumbled out of the gate last weekend, disappointing audiences that were likely expecting an iteration of Neeson’s “Taken” persona, the contrasting mix of precision when it comes to the violent arts and emotion when the chips are down and his loved ones are in danger. “Tombstones” cast him as crime fiction writer Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder, a wounded lone wolf with a short leash on his emotions, because any slip could send him back to the bottom of the nearest bottle.

I would have likened Scudder to Washington’s Creasy, from Tony Scott’s 2004 remake of “Man on Fire,” a personal favorite of mine, because not only was this version of Creasy emotionally scarred, but we get to see a more complete character arc, as this stoic man of action warms up to his young charge (Dakota Fanning), gets mortally wounded protecting her and then slowly rises, phoenix-like from the ashes, in order to save her (ultimately sacrificing himself, but not before raining down scorching hellfire and apocalyptic vengeance on those who dared to harm a hair on the girl’s head.)

Washington’s back in familiar territory with “The Equalizer,” stepping up this time to protect a too-young streetwalker (Chloë Grace Moretz) from the Russian mobsters running the corners and the higher echelons of the covert political world. While on one hand Washington is perfectly suited to this particular type of project, he and Neeson would, to the more astute observer, appear to be set on cruise control in these vehicles. Without a doubt, Washington stalks the screen like a panther, whereas Neeson is the squinty-eyed big game hunter, but they also generate a higher degree of gravitas whenever they grace the screen and it would be far more interesting for them to channel that almost mutant-like power in films requiring that particular skill set.

Neeson, to his credit, has ventured off his recently beaten (bludgeoned might be more accurate) track in the less-than-successful drama “Third Person,” from writer-director Paul Haggis, the animated one-two punch of “The Nut Job” and “The Lego Movie,” as well as live-action comedic turns in “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues,” “A Million Ways to Die in the West” and his upcoming bit in “Ted 2.” Stepping from ensembles to animation (where his voice does the heavy lifting, rather than his ruggedly handsome profile) then on to smaller comic shots, Neeson embraces the full spectrum of performative possibilities, especially the notion he doesn’t have to be the featured star in every frame, which actually creates a scenario where when he does pop up onscreen, he is, in fact, drawing more attention.

Washington, on the other hand, as one of a handful of stars who continues to guarantee $20+ million on opening weekends, cannot seem to afford to play second fiddle, unless he happens to be at the helm. Going back to the start of the new millennium, Washington has only taken supporting roles in “Antwone Fisher” and “The Great Debaters,” his two directing projects. A curious position for an actor who earned his first Academy Award for “Glory” in 1989, a mesmerizing turn, to be sure, but one that came in support (in what was truly an ensemble piece).

It should be noted, though, Washington has not been unwilling to share top-billing during his big box office run, working opposite the likes of Ethan Hawke (“Training Day”), Chiwetel Ejiofor and Clive Owen (“Inside Man”), Russell Crowe (“American Gangster”), Chris Pine (“Unstoppable”), Ryan Reynolds (“Safe House”) and Mark Wahlberg (“2 Guns”), so maybe, somewhere in the not-so distant future, we may get to enjoy the tasty pairing of Washington and Neeson.

My perfect pitch for these two aging warriors would be to cast them as mentors to a pair of upstarts, in a cat-and-mouse styled thriller (think “Heat”) where they, like Pacino and De Niro in that film, never actually share the same frame. How’s that for all things being equal between these two heavyweights?

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at terrencetodd.wordpress.com.

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Reach DCP Film Critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at TerrenceTodd.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ttsternenzi.

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