What made the original Equalizer special in the realm of revenge action thrillers was the imperturbable zen attitude of Denzel Washington’s Robert McCall, a retired CIA agent living simply among common people, reading worthy books and roused to action only when there were serious wrongs to be righted on behalf of people unable to help themselves. The savior quality, along with its concomitant humor, carries over into this follow-up, the first sequel Washington has ever done, but this distinctive character is gradually subsumed by familiar genre imperatives that eventually make McCall seem less special and singular than he did on first exposure in 2014. The initial entry pulled in $192 million worldwide, and this one, which looks considerably more expensive than the original, should do roughly the same.
The great appeal of McCall the first time around was his profile as a lone samurai, a societal outlier of regular habits, a man with an ascetic lifestyle and a straightforward dedication to helping those in need. He exhibited no religious affiliation, but his monk-like calm was unmistakable, making it all the more exciting when he was finally roused to action.
Unequal to the first.
That the old veteran is still at the top of his game is apparent here in the Bond-like opening, in which McCall, bearded and dressed in native garb aboard a speeding train in Turkey and conspicuously shown to be reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, enters the club car and in short order dispatches three swarthy thugs. The incident feels entirely arbitrary but serves as a reminder that McCall was designed to fulfill all manner of righteous revenge fantasies and is still able to deliver.
Back home in Boston, McCall has moved into a more commodious, somewhat less spartan apartment than he occupied four years ago. He now works as a Lyft driver and seems more outwardly dedicated to those in need of a helping hand, including a Holocaust survivor (Orson Bean) and a local kid, Miles (Ashton Sanders, of Moonlight and the upcoming Native Son, in which he plays Bigger Thomas), who he sees getting sucked in by the wrong crowd.
He also remains close to his former CIA handler, Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo, percolating buoyantly), who knew his late wife, to whom McCall remains reverentially true. The purity of mind and pared-down simplicity of his life are what mark the man as a special character; these days, anyone — from little kids to old-timers wondrously made to look younger — can be an action star, but no others come off like an urban contemporary Siddhartha.
According to The Equalizer 2, the place not to be theses days is Brussels, where repeated sets of multiple murders of upscale officials at their homes are being committed by some ruthless commandos of unknown origin. The fact that one set of victims includes Susan plunges McCall into action, all the more so when it becomes evident that he’s on the hit list as well.
Along with the fact that McCall has by now moved on from Coates to reading Proust, the man’s meditative, cloistered side essentially disappears at this point, which turns him into an essentially conventional action hero. Having set young Miles on the right path by getting him to spruce up their apartment building rather than hanging with gangsta types, McCall from here on dedicates himself to tracking down the evident killer, none other than his old partner Dave (Pedro Pascal, of TV’s Narcos). From here on, we could as easily be watching Dirty Harry, Rambo or John McClane, so generic do McCall’s actions become at this point.
In fact, the grand finale showcasing the ultimate mano a mano between McCall and Dave comes off as both predictable and fundamentally preposterous, no matter how unusual its location, that being a coastal Massachusetts town (actually Brant Rock, an hour south of Boston) during a hurricane-force storm. Screenwriter Richard Wenk and director Antoine Fuqua obviously thought long and hard to come up with a setting for their climax that might seem fresh, but in fact it’s silly; why would either of these foes choose to fight it out under these conditions? It all seems too clever even for McCall’s unusual mind and simply too stupid for the shrewd Dave, who could easily have retreated and lived to fight another day.
And the long, wet, windblown finale also contains at least one big continuity blunder: All the electrical power in the community has been knocked out by the fierce winds and yet at one point McCall is able to switch on two big fans to blow some sight-obscuring powder in his adversary’s direction.
Even though the evil impulses of the villains feel rote and arbitrary, The Equalizer 2 is not without its pleasures. With his pared-down lifestyle, clear view of priorities and extreme skill at what he does, McCall remains a welcome and ingratiating character, an unusual action figure who Washington imbues with calm, grace and intelligence, a man whose downtime is actually more rewarding than when he’s once again, but inevitably, called back into battle.
Production companies: Columbia Pictures, Escape Artists, Zhiv, Mace Neufeld Productions
Cast: Denzel Washington, Pedro Pascal, Ashton Sanders, Bill Pullman, Melissa Leo, Jonathan Scarfe, Orson Bean
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Screenwriter: Richard Wenk, based on the television series created by Michael Sloan, Richard Lindheim
Producers: Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, Denzel Washington, Antoine Fuqua, Alex Siskin, Steve Tisch, Mace Neufeld, Tony Eldridge, Michael Sloan
Executive producers: Molly Allen, David Bloomfield
Director of photography: Oliver Wood
Production designer: Naomi Shohan
Costume designer: Jenny Gering
Editor: Conrad Buff
Music: Harry Gregson-Williams
Casting: Lindsay Graham, Mary Vernieu
Rated R, 121 minutes