I counted two dozen dead bodies in the opening few minutes of The Equalizer 3, the latest installment of the hugely profitable Equalizer movie series starring Denzel Washington. Some of them were shot, some were garroted, and one poor soul had what looked like an axe buried in his skull.

The movie opens with a father and his son driving slowly toward a mountaintop Sicilian villa, passing dead security men along the way. The father gets out of the Range Rover and begins creeping through the compound, gun drawn, stepping over the corpses and blood splatters and giving axe-in-the-head guy the once over, and if you’re not familiar with The Equalizer pictures, you might be expecting that this was all the work of some deranged psychopath, some Manson Family–type looney we’re about to meet. But if you know the basic template, you know that all of this blood and death and destruction was the work of one man, Robert McCall, the character played by Denzel Washington. Robert McCall, for you Equalizer newbies, is the good guy.

And you also know two more things: One, that the movie will unfold with a plot that is impenetrably complicated and childishly simplistic at the same time; and two, that when it’s done, all of the bad guys will be killed in the most operatic, over-the-top way. And there’s a third thing: It will be immensely satisfying and lots of fun.

For me, anyway. I love the Equalizer movies. And I’m not the only one. Despite being essentially ignored by the entertainment-industry publicity machine—Wait, there are three Equalizer movies? I can hear some of you asking—the movies have raked in nearly $600 million worldwide. They are enormously dependable successes for Sony Pictures Entertainment, and they represent a roughly 300 percent return on their total investment. The way things go in Hollywood, it’s fair to expect The Equalizer 4 soon, as well as a mini-constellation of Equalizer satellites—origin-story episodes, post–Denzel Washington portrayals of Robert McCall, an Expanded Equalizer Universe—as the executives at Sony Pictures Entertainment overthink and overproduce and eventually squeeze the life out of a simple and profitable business line.

The Equalizer is a terrific example of the Good Psychopath genre of stories, in which a morally upright and highly skilled warrior with a shadowy paramilitary past helps the powerless fight bad guys. In The Equalizer series, the bad guys are the usual suspects: sex traffickers, Eastern European mobsters, drug smugglers, terrorists, and a baffling mishmash of all four in the most recent, Equalizer 3. And because the Good Psychopath is a remorseless killing machine, it’s important to wipe away any possible ambiguity in the moral setup. The bad guys must be extremely bad—way, way psychopathier than the hero—so they rape and torture and steal old people’s pensions, and they sneer and bully and cackle at their evil deeds. They do everything but literally twirl their villainous mustaches, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a few takes where they do just that, probably cut from the final version in an (uncharacteristic) act of creative restraint.

The Equalizer entered American culture as a television character in the eponymous CBS Network series starring Edward Woodward as Robert McCall. In the original television series, which ran from 1985 to 1989, McCall is also a former intelligence agent with a shadowy past who fights for the little guy—in a realistically rendered crime-riddled New York City, so it was no fantasy—but the body count is much, much smaller. The show was rebooted in 2021, this time with Queen Latifah as a gender-adjusted Robyn McCall, and has been a steady performer for CBS for four seasons. Wait, The Equalizer reboot has been on TV for four seasons? I can hear you asking.

So there’s a feature-film version of Robert McCall that’s blood and guts and revenge, and there’s a broadcast television version that’s tamer and less violent, but the key elements are the same: utterly powerless victims, utterly remorseless villains, and a hero who settles the score and emerges without a scratch.

There’s also a streaming version of essentially the same character. Reacher, which can be found on Amazon Prime. It doesn’t have the polish or production values of its feature-film cousin—the dialogue is hilariously awful, the sets are spare and overlit—but it’s got the same basic tick-tock. Reacher, played by the mountainous Alan Ritchson, is, you guessed it, a morally upright and highly skilled warrior with a shadowy paramilitary past who helps the powerless fight bad guys. The bad guys in Reacher are super-duper nuts. The first season featured disembowelings, a crucifixion, a sneering psychopathic rich kid, and a villain who inexplicably carries a crystal-topped walking stick.

Reacher is the number-one title on Prime Video, and it’s available across the globe. The first season was hugely popular with audiences of all descriptions, and the second season became Prime’s top show within six days of its release. In other words, Prime Video discovered what Sony and CBS already knew. People like morally upright heroes with shadowy paramilitary backgrounds who use their warrior skills to help the little guy and kill the bad guys. Or the shorter version: Audiences love a Good Psychopath.

Reacher and The Equalizer’s McCall have one big thing in common: a murky set of military experiences and deep experience in intelligence work. In that way, they represent a major shift in the culture. Not too long ago, a character like that would have been one of the baddies, permanently scarred by a violent past. For decades after the fall of Saigon, Vietnam vets on screen were either mumbling, defenseless shell-shock victims or creepy psycho killers. The indelible image of the wartime psychopath was embodied by Lieutenant William Calley Jr., a platoon leader in the United States Army Company C who murdered 22 villagers in what became known as the My Lai Massacre.

Calley spent a few years under house arrest in Fort Benning and is still alive, somewhere in Florida. I wonder whether he’s seen Reacher or any of The Equalizers, or for that matter any of the other variations on the Good Psychopath genre like the Taken franchise. I wonder if he thinks, Hey, I know that guy! Or maybe he just cheers along with the rest of us, lost in the unrealistic but satisfying fable where a slightly cracked master killer fights on the side of Good.

I have a movie-producer friend who pitched a really clever variation on the theme a few years ago. He described it as a kind of “Reverse Taken,” in which a helpless and untrained young person must save a father with a shadowy paramilitary background who uses his warrior skills to kill the bad guys but who has somehow found himself captured. I heard the pitch, and it was terrific—exciting, moving, and even nuanced in parts. He told me that the reaction across town was the same: We love this, they said. We love it. But, maybe—and this is just a thought—maybe you could flip it? Make the shadowy paramilitary warrior guy be the one who rescues the kid and fights for the little guy?

“But you already make that,” he said. “This is different.”

“Yes,” they said. “We know.”

He didn’t make a sale. The buyers seemed reluctant to fiddle with the formula. For now, anyway. But this is Hollywood. Reverse Taken and Reacher: The Early Years are on their way, eventually.

Photo: Budiey/Flicker

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