You may or may not know that this franchise from director Antoine Fuqua and star Denzel Washington is based on a television series of the same name from the eighties that starred Edward Woodward. In each version, the main character, ex-intelligence agent Robert McCall, seeks to strike a balance between right and wrong through vigilantism, though the methods used vary wildly from the former version to the latter. Woodward’s version of the character relied primarily on his wits to neutralize the perpetrators, whereas Denzel’s (Denzel gets the first-name treatment. He’s earned it.) seems to take pleasure in dishing out pain.
Denzel and Fuqua have also become a bit of a Hollywood tag team, having now worked together four times: Training Day, the 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven (find that review here), and now the two Equalizer films. This, oddly enough, also marks the first time that Denzel has ever starred in a sequel to a film, so this is new ground for him. The original film made approximately 3.5 times its production budget, so I suppose that this is as good a place as any for him to start.
In the film, McCall has chosen to continue his vigilante ways, while also moving on to a new job as a driver for Lyft and into a new apartment complex. As he plays mild-mannered, friendly neighborhood Denzel by day and hardened enforcer of justice by night, McCall befriends a neighborhood teen (Ashton Sanders) in danger of taking a wrong turn in life. McCall struggles to find the proper balance between his two lives and that struggle becomes significantly greater when the two worlds collide and his friends are suddenly becoming targets of an unknown criminal empire.
I find it extraordinarily ironic that a movie called The Equalizer could be so frustratingly uneven. It’s not that I found no enjoyment in the film. It’s just that as soon as I thought things were clicking along nicely, something would happen to knock the film’s momentum off-kilter. Denzel’s performance and the duality inherent in the nature of Robert McCall are the heart of the film, but I have to say that I’m still not sure I know who McCall is, even after two movies. It’s clear that his heart is in the right place (or at least, he thinks it is), but what isn’t clear is if he performs his heroic duties with such extreme aggression because it’s always absolutely necessary or if he gets off on it, in some demented way, like a new Chris Kyle. Denzel is as charming and charismatic as ever, here, and he makes it easy to simply want to give McCall a pass for his excessive brutality but the question of McCall’s true motivations nags at the back of the mind and kept me from fully engaging with the character.
In addition, there are several diversionary subplots or scenes that do nothing to contribute to the overarching narrative or even to any character development. They exist simply to add action elements and to extend the film’s running time. It would not have been difficult to rewrite them so that they were somewhat relevant to the issues at hand, but I suppose that would have been hard, or something. It also must have been hard to write intelligent villains who aren’t thrown completely off of their strategy by momentary distractions. In short, though there are stretches where the script is competent, as a whole, it’s choppy, unfocused, and flat-out lazy.
If it’s the action you want, it delivers – even if it sometimes comes across as unnecessarily cruel. No matter where one’s opinion on the severity of the violence lands, there’s no question that it’s brutal and hard-hitting, not to mention expertly choreographed. Falling far shorter than the action are all of the attempts to elicit suspense for the audience. The filmmaking gimmicks that Fuqua employs in his attempts to heighten the tension in the film are antiquated and pedestrian, failing at every single turn.
I’ll equate it to the horror film trope where a character opens a refrigerator so that the door blocks the background from the viewer, only to close it to find that the killer now stands next to them. Horror films long ago ceased to use this device (though it’s still teased with somewhat regularity) because audiences caught onto it and it was no longer effective. Fuqua hasn’t caught on to similar tropes for the action genre and audiences will be far ahead of him in his attempts to surprise them with any narrative devices or mid-scene twists. If he wishes to remain relevant in this genre, he will need to get ahead of that curve sooner rather than later.
Ultimately, Denzel and the well-constructed action sequences salvage the film. But, as a whole, The Equalizer 2 is unbalanced, unfocused, and somewhat misguided. Those with lower standards, those who shut their brains off, or those who love anything that Denzel is in could find more to latch onto here than others will. Despite that, what it all comes down to is that The Equalizer 2 is a well-conceived but poorly-executed project that fails to even find its ambition, much less realize it.
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