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It is oddly appropriate that Denzel Washington’s first sequel be something as generic and run-of-the-mill as The Equalizer 2. While it delivers in the realms of action and violence, and Washington remains as engaging as ever (there’s a reason he’s one of our last no IP/no franchise movie stars), the film strips away much of what made the first film unique. We (mostly) lose the everyday locales and the slow-building tension, and Washington becomes a more conventional action figure this time out.
Richard Wenk’s screenplay starts on a strong note, with essentially two extended sequences of Robert McCall doing his equalize-ing thing. The second such sequence involves him working as a Lyft driver and “equalizing” a victimized passenger. This brutal, violent action sequence makes McCall either the best or worst Lyft driver ever.
Whether this counts as good publicity for the various ride-sharing services, I remain disappointed that at no point does Washington deliver a final blow while uttering something to the effect of “You’ve been equalized!” C’mon people, you buy this IP for a reason, right? These two action sequences, which frankly make up the majority of the film’s vigilantism, are broken up by a moving reunion between McCall and Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo).
She’s an old friend of his and a friend of his late wife. Sue shows up in his home on the anniversary of his wife’s death with a bowl of soup and a comforting hand. They aren’t lovers, as he is just as chummy with her husband Brian (Bill Pullman) as they joke about her pretending to read his new book. More than just humanizing this stone-cold hero, these sequences work as solid drama. Ditto a subplot involving Orson Bean as a Holocaust survivor trying to prove ownership of a stolen painting.
The subplot involving a local kid (Ashton Sanders from Moonlight) whom McCall tries to dissuade from running with a bad crowd is less successful if only because it is merely a means to an end for the otherwise unrelated A-plot. It takes a while for the inciting event (which if you’ve seen the previews, you know what it is) to kick McCall into action. But after that point, which is pretty close to the halfway mark, the film goes from a character study that happens to contain action to a conventional Cannon-style actioner with little personality and even less flavor.
Good supporting work from Pedro Pascal as a former CIA coworker is mostly wasted, and the film plays out pretty much as you’d expect. Aside from a superb suspense sequence involving a bystander stuck in McCall’s house when the bad guys arrive, there isn’t much entertainment value after the plot shifts into the gear. Once McCall shifts into full-time Equalizer mode, things become less interesting.
Yes, there is a big showdown (in a literally splashy location) between the good guy and the bad guys, but it is devoid of personality or any real emotional climax. Yes, in one sense this is a more conventional action sequel, in that it’s more of an episode of the week adventure than any kind of huge status-quo shift. Save for exactly one plot point, you could skip this movie entirely and be entirely caught up for The Equalizer 3.
The first Antoine Fuqua action thriller, loosely based on a 1980’s CBS action drama, was part IP adaptation and part star vehicle. If anything, Washington’s former CIA black-ops operative-turned-vigilante was almost self-satire. That this reluctant hero also held down a day job at “not Home Depot” lent the film a certain blue-collar credibility and spice.
It was about a man who had put down his sword and wanted to live in peace yet who was unable to look away when a sword (or a shield) was required. However, it was also Washington playing a meta-variation on his righteous revenger character, one whose Man on Fire remake re-popularized the “un-stoppable old man out for a kill” sub-genre five years before Taken made it a thing.
The Equalizer was no genre classic, but it had plenty of personality and polish (this sequel looks and feels cheaper) and a certain amount of knowing humor. The Equalizer 2 has little reason to exist aside from Washington’s desire to have his own franchise. However, Denzel Washington remains a movie star precisely because the mere idea of him in a brutal action movie is itself something of a franchise or a brand.
You could call this flick Man on Fire 2 and little would have to change. But even among his straight-up genre flicks, this one doesn’t come anywhere near the heights of Devil in a Blue Dress or Out of Time. It can’t decide if it wants to be trashy like Ricochet or distinguished like Manchurian Candidate. As a result, it’s something of a muddle.