By Richard Corliss
September 25, 2014

Summer is the kids’ season, on vacation or at the movies. In autumn, with mottled foliage and the first chill, the old men emerge as sentries for Hollywood’s bleaker treats and tricks. First Liam Neeson, 62, took A Walk Among the Tombstones–a suitable venue for a hero used to living with the dying. Now Denzel Washington, who turns 60 this year, reasserts his Old Testament Dude status in Antoine Fuqua’s The Equalizer.

His fellow workers at Home Mart call him Mac: quiet fellow, friendly and helpful and, it seems, emotionally postmortem. At night he reads alone in his Boston flat or in a diner, where he comforts the young Russian prostitute Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz). When Mac sees the girl abused by her pimp Slavi (David Meunier), he offers to buy her for $9,800. That gets a big giggle from Slavi–the last laugh for him and his four thugs. Now Mac must tangle with the Russian mob’s prime enforcer, a purring cobra named Teddy (Marton Csokas, whose death-mask face suggests a more muscular Kevin Spacey). Every goon in town, along with a cordon of cops on the take, wants to kill Mac–a.k.a. Robert McCall, a top government agent who “died” decades ago.

No memories of the 1990s TV series, starring Edward Woodward as McCall, are needed to enjoy this virulently lively thriller. Fuqua, who steered Washington to an Oscar in Training Day, creates tension by mixing extreme closeups with elegant tracking shots. The viewer alternately counts beads of sweat on a gangster’s face and gets a God’s-eye view of a corrupt city that’s not too big for one righteous man to bring down or blow up.

Except for a goofily long climax in the Home Mart, the movie provides a superb showcase for McCall’s preternatural skills–his hypervision, lightning reflexes and innovative use of a corkscrew–and for Washington in the dour-deity mode he paraded in his last truly cool film, The Book of Eli. If The Equalizer is the hit it should be, it will give this veteran action star his very first franchise. We can’t wait for the sequel, any time of year.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

This appears in the October 06, 2014 issue of TIME.

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