Following the success of their 2014 TV-to-movie reboot, director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) and star Denzel Washington (c’mon, you know him) re-team for another tilt at the further adventures of CIA badass turned friendly neighbourhood vigilante, Robert McCall. The results, as they say are mixed.
The Equalizer 2 sees our man McCall working as a Lyft driver in-between using his capacity for staggering violence to deliver a little girl from her kidnapper father, or help a Holocaust survivor track down a missing painting. His routine of community-minded chaos is interrupted when his oldest friend and colleague, CIA agent Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo, whom Fuqua last brutalised in 2013’s Olympus Has Fallen) is murdered, seemingly in a robbery gone wrong. Of course that isn’t the case, of course there’s a conspiracy, and of course McCall vows to find those responsible and wreak bloody vengeance upon them.
The thing is, the plot doesn’t matter – which is a good thing, seeing as The Equalizer 2 is one of the most sloppily plotted films to come down the pike in a good long while. No, the plot only exists as a kind of narrative trellis to support scenes of two kinds: ones where Denzel is dispensing harsh, stoic wisdom, and ones where he is dispensing harsh, brutal justice. The film gets around the murky, troubling questions that dogged the recent Death Wish reboot simply by having Washington be the off-the-books hand of vengeance; not only does that remove the irksome racial issues around vigilantism, the man has such an air of moral authority that as an audience we’re more or less charmed by his sheer force of personality into siding with him. These things are the right things to do because Denzel is doing them.
It helps, if that is the right word, that the universe of The Equalizer movies is a pretty horrible one, where truly despicable people terrorise the innocent on the reg. If that’s the world outside your window, who wouldn’t want a kindly, book-loving former black ops commando quietly breaking the fingers of rapists? The problem is that Fuqua and his screenwriter, Richard Wenk, demonstrate how fallen the world is by depicting an awful lot of violence against women, doubling down on what was already an uncomfortable element in the first film. Of course, we want our bad guys to be bad, but after a while you start to wonder if this continued pattern (one woman is shot in the head, one is stabbed to death, one is gang raped) hints at uglier motivations.
It does, I guess, give Denzel full license to completely dismantle the bad guys when the time comes, and at 63 the acclaimed actor remains a convincing action hero, even if the action borders on slasher movie slaying. When he’s completely off the leash, McCall is basically “what if Michael Myers, but on our side?”, slicing villains to shreds with swift savage knife work, including one kill that might be the most horrifying to feature in a mainstream motion picture since… well, The Equalizer.
But these well staged, cleverly conceived and shockingly graphic action sequences don’t distract from the fact that when you get right down to it, The Equalizer 2 is pretty dumb, beyond even the normal generous allowances made for the action genre. The plot runs on coincidence and happenstance, but often drags just to allow McCall to hang out tossing nuggets of wisdom at whoever hoves by, mainly a troubled teen in danger of being sucked into the drug milieu (Ashton Sanders). The conspiracy is perfunctory and the aims of the antagonists (whose identities remain mysterious right up until you give it a second’s thought) have no real world stakes. Even on a basic staging level, the film falters – all other considerations aside, the climactic battle takes place in seaside town in the middle of a hurricane that somehow leaves the combatants, who are running and gunning through gale force winds, completely dry.
Which is not to say there aren’t pleasures to be gleaned from The Equalizer 2, but they’re pretty basic ones. Essentially, if your idea of a good night out is watching Denzel Washington hang tough and destroy deserving scumbags, there’s something for you here. Any expectations beyond that will go sadly unmet.