denzel washingtonWhy was anyone surprised that "The Equalizer" was a solid hit, opening at an estimated $35.0 million?

Tracking suggested that the Denzel Washington movie would open only in the high 20s; after all, it's a movie based on a second-tier 1980s TV action drama that no one under 50 remembers fondly, and it's competing in the marketplace with Liam Neeson's similar "A Walk Among the Tombstones."

Nonetheless, "The Equalizer" pulled off the fourth largest September opening ever and marked the 12th straight $20-million-plus opening for a Washington wide-release movie, a track record stretching back a decade.

Clearly, Washington remains, at 59, one of Hollywood's most reliable box office draws. (And like fellow AARP-aged action hero Neeson, Washington shows no sign of slowing down.)

What is he doing right? What does he have that others don't? Here are a few things.

Consistency. The world-weary, vengeful man-of-action role that Washington plays in "Equalizer" may seem awfully familiar to those who've seen him in "2 Guns," "Safe House," "The Book of Eli," and many other films. But if it ain't broke, why fix it?

Selectivity. A corollary is that Washington tends to pick projects well-suited to his persona. He also likes to work with the same directors over and over, those who best know how to bring forth his latent intensity. (He made five films with Tony Scott, four with Spike Lee, three with Ed Zwick, and two each with Jonathan Demme, Carl Franklin, and now, "Training Day" and "Equalizer" director Antoine Fuqua.) And for all their superficial similarity, the movies he's picked remain unique; not one has spawned a sequel -- though "Equalizer" looks like it will be the first to do so, marking the first time in his 33-year film career that Washington has played a character more than once.

Volatility. Washington seldom plays against type, which makes those rare occasions when he does so all the more shocking and exciting. (See "Training Day," "American Gangster," and "Flight.") But even in his quiet, heroic roles, there's always a hint of menace below the surface, of repressed rage waiting to explode. Washington seethes as well as anyone in movies, but it's when he unleashes that wolfish grin that you know someone else is in trouble.

Craftsmanship. "Equalizer" and other Washington action thrillers may be B-movies writ large, but that doesn't mean he doesn't devote his full talent to each one. He brings such earnest, righteous anger to each one that you'd think he was doing an Arthur Miller play, not a Hollywood shoot-'em-up.

Charisma. Washington enjoys near universal appeal. As the audience breakdown for "Equalizer" has shown, he attracts male and female ticketbuyers in equal numbers. He also does well overseas (he and Will Smith having long since put to rest the dubious Hollywood conventional wisdom that foreign audiences don't care for black actors). Remarkably, only four of Washington's movies have earned more than $100 million in North American theaters ("Safe House," "American Gangster," "Remember the Titans," and "The Pelican Brief"), but he has 19 nine-figure movies if you add in foreign box office.

Prestige. Or, if you prefer, Talent. Washington has six Oscar nominations and two victories, so critics like him as much as regular audiences do. His name on a movie poster is a sign of quality, a sign that even his latest action thriller will be smarter and better-acted than most. He even landed "The Equalizer" a spot in this month's Toronto International Film Festival, which probably convinced many critics that the film was more prestigious than it actually is. And critical approval is still important to the older audience that comprises Washington's bread and butter (some 65 percent of "Equalizer" moviegoers were over 30).

Timing. Or, if you prefer, Luck. It didn't hurt "Equalizer" that it came out in September (usually a box office dead zone), that its only competition among new releases was family stop-motion animated feature "The Boxtrolls" (which opened at No. 3 with an estimated $17.3 million, about half the take of "Equalizer"), and that its only real competition at the multiplex was Neeson's week-old 'Tombstones," which plummeted five spots to No. 7 and grossed just an estimated $4.2 million, down 67 percent from its debut a week ago. So Washington has had the good fortune to open against movies that either don't compete directly against him or, if they do, are too weak to pose a serious threat.

Not everything Washington touches turns to gold. The small indie dramas that he's directed, "Antwone Fisher" and "The Great Debaters," may have been labors of love, but neither grossed more than $30.2 million worldwide. Still, in a mainstream thriller or drama, there's no more reliable sign of a crowd-pleaser than Washington's name on the marquee.

categories Movies, Box Office