Goes through the (brutal) motions.
Antoine Fuqua’s The Equalizer (released in 2014 and based on a mid-1980s TV series), remains, perhaps, the best Punisher feature film we’ll ever see. Robert McCall, as played by Denzel Washington, is a righteous vigilante with an implacable sense of righteousness, and no small amount talent when it comes to violent killing. McCall quietly works blue collar jobs, eats in modest local diners, and who is slowly working his way through the 100 best books in the Western Canon at the behest of a fallen wife. He even has a gimmick. When McCall charges into a room to do damage to a large number of Russian pimps and scumbags, he times himself via stopwatch as if he’s trying to beat his own record. Robert McCall is essentially a comic book superhero. It’s easy to see, then, why Washington and Fuqua would want to make The Equalizer 2, the first time either of them has made a sequel or reprised a character. Robert McCall must be a fun character to play and offers both the director and the actor a chance to present a heroic vigilante with both thrilling violence as well as actual moral indignation.
He’s certainly a modest delight to watch, at least in fits, as The Equalizer 2 contains some wonderful self-contained moments from McCall in both an action/fight capacity and in a civic-minded activist capacity. Indeed, so eager was Fuqua to see McCall in action that The Equalizer 2 introduces him twice: First, aboard a Turkish train, where he is seen taking out high-level gangsters with spinning kicks and well-placed fists, and again in a Boston high-rise where he beats a cadre of wealthy yuppies after they mistreat a woman. While the secondary establishment of McCall’s badass cred is not needed for the film as a whole, it’s still fun to see a rich, arrogant brat – probably named Brett or something – get sliced in the neck by his own sharpened platinum credit card.
When he’s not kicking ass, McCall is making ends meet as a Lyft driver (the screenplay namechecks Lyft at least a dozen times) and conversing with the colorful locals. McCall can also be found cleaning the graffiti off of his Boston apartment building and reading the 100th book in his quest, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time: Time Regained. We also witness McCall actively reaching out to an at-risk teen named Miles (Ashton Sanders from Moonlight) who teeters between a life at art school and a life as a criminal. McCall even has a chance – late in the film – to give Miles a speech about the power of character and the importance of making the right choices. As one would expect from Denzel Washington, it’s an excellently acted scene, providing a touching and intense moment of surprising depth and salient, modern morality.
As a film, however, The Equalizer 2 runs roughshod through its motions, an unfortunately consistent aesthetic that has run through a lot of Fuqua’s film work. The Equalizer 2, for all its great fights, excellent acting from Washington, and tone of general righteousness, feels largely flimsy. The plot is unfocused, and characters are forgotten about for great spans of the film’s 121-minute running time; Bill Pullman is introduced early in the film, and then doesn’t appear again for 40-odd minutes. The Equalizer 2 features notable deaths and aggressively brutal violence (there are several messy headshots, multiple stabbings, and one harpoon through the face), but the film’s action is haphazardly delivered at random points throughout its narrative; That is to say: Just when The Equalizer 2 should be ramping up, it typically stops for an extended breath.
What’s more, the villain – once their identity is revealed – is one of the more generic you may encounter. The villain’s speeches aren’t moving or novel and their motivation is boring, and the actor playing the villain doesn’t possess any note of threat or sinister power. The villain is just a dull, dull person.
Luckily, McCall’s own resolute strength of character – wonderfully shouldered by Washington, easily one of the greatest of all working actors – makes up for a lot of the film’s writing weaknesses, elevating The Equalizer 2, ever so slightly, from a nondescript summer thriller into something watchable. Here is a violent, badass superhero who cares about the community at large more than he cares about punching bad guys. In a way, that’s a nice change of pace. Should Washington and Fuqua decide to revisit McCall again, it wouldn’t be unwelcome.