At 63, two-time Academy Award-winner Denzel Washington doesn’t need a franchise, superhero-related or otherwise, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to participate in an ongoing series, if mostly for box-office viability (just ask Tom Cruise and an A-list career sustained in large part due to the continuing success of the Mission: Impossible series). Not surprisingly, the Washington we meet in The Equalizer 2 is older, slower, even heavier, but that doesn’t stop his character, Robert McCall, an ex-CIA black ops operative, from easily dispatching men several decades younger without breaking as much as a sweat or suffering superficial paper cuts. Believable? Maybe, maybe not, but with Washington contributing the focus, commitment, and dedication typical of an Oscar-worthy or Oscar-caliber effort, believability almost doesn’t matter. What does matter, though, is The Equalizer 2 suffers from a been-there, seen-it-all-before quality that ultimately delivers minimal, marginal entertainment value (one or two or three scenes excepted).
When we catch up with McCall, he’s left big box, home-improvement stores behind – the scene of The Equalizer’s memorable climax – for a spot in the gig economy driving for Lyft (shout out to Lyft’s product placement team) and a role not dissimilar to Taxi Driver, minus the desire to assassinate politicians or paint a pimp’s apartment in buckets of blood (that was the last film). He’s older, he’s slower, and he’s heavier. He doesn’t wear a cape, a cowl, or spandex, but he’s a superhero (vigilante class) in all but name. He doesn’t advertise himself as “the equalizer,” but if he did, he’d have a superhero name to call his own. McCall’s still righteous, he’s still righting wrongs, including an opening scene set piece set in Turkey, but he’s also trying to keep a low profile, living quietly in a modest apartment, churning his way through the “100 Best Books You Must Read Before You Leave This Plane of Existence for The Next One,” and quietly mourning his long-dead wife. Outside of his longtime friend/CIA handler, Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo), everyone in the CIA think McCall’s dead. That he hasn’t changed his name and occasionally leaves a trail of corpses in his wake after a self-imposed mission doesn’t seem to come to anyone’s attention, in the CIA or in general law enforcement.
All that driving, though, gives McCall access to a random cross-section of Boston’s finest and not-so-finest, from the elderly Holocaust survivor, Sam Rubinstein (Orson Bean), who obsessively gathers evidence to prove his family ownership of a long-lost painting, to a group of Caucasian frat-bros who dump a sexually abused woman in McCall’s car (as they soon discover, a massive mistake on their part), and later, a not-quite-middle-aged man in an uncomfortable-looking suit and a not-quite-believable story about flying home for his preteen daughter’s home. But all of McCall’s driving is just prelude (and interlude) for The Equalizer 2’s central story: McCall going into revenge mode when a close friend and confidante gets the “fridge” treatment (cruelly eliminated in service of the hero’s journey/mission), leading McCall to reconnect with his former CIA partner, Dave York (Pedro Pascal), and a trio of ruthless, globe-trotting assassins for hire with the obligatory connection to McCall’s black ops past.
When McCall isn’t in revenge mode, however, he’s playing father figure to Miles Whittaker (Ashton Sanders, Moonlight), a troubled young man who’s fallen in with the local drug gang. McCall sees something in Miles others haven’t seen: the potential to not just better himself as an artist, but become a productive, law-abiding member of society. McCall’s years of living semi-off-the-grid may not have prepared him for his second life as a surrogate dad, but all of his reading, meditation, and isolation apparently have. Oddly, the McCall-Miles relationship doesn’t feel anywhere near as tangential or unimportant to the main story as it sounds – not only because Miles has a key role to play in the third act – but because, for better or for worse, The Equalizer 2 unfolds as part action-film, part-revenge-thriller, and part character study.
Washington’s collaborator behind the camera, Antoine Fuqua (The Magnificent Seven, The Equalizer, Training Day), and returning screenwriter Richard Wenk (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, The Magnificent Seven, The Expendables 2), give McCall plenty of screen time away from the carefully choreographed bouts of bloodletting, eye gougings, and stabbings, to ruminate, contemplate, and meditate on a fallen world and McCall’s place in it (i.e., vigilantism). And when McCall promises to bring not just a world, but an entire universe, of punishment and paint to the generic villains, it’s a promise McCall, the villains, and more importantly, the audience knows he’ll keep. Unfortunately, The Equalizer 2’s hurricane-set climax falls far short of its predecessor’s and not just due to over obvious CGI or a poor sense of geography (surprising given Fuqua’s usual mastery of same), but because it pales badly in comparison to The Equalizer’s.