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The Equalizer 2: Deadly Denzel in a half-decent sequel

 By Dan Cava

July 20, 2018

The Equalizer 2 is director Antoine Fuqua and actor Denzel Washington’s fourth film together, and the duo seem to be settling into a comfortable groove. For better and for worse, this somewhat unexpected sequel mirrors its predecessors in many ways. Like the first installment, EQ2 is at its core a fairly standard genre exercise punctuated by Denzel-elevated character scenes and a handful of stunning action scenes.

While virtuous vigilante Robert McCall makes ends meet as a Lyft driver, the assassination of someone (it doesn’t really matter who) somewhere in Europe (it doesn’t really matter where) kicks off a chain of events that leads to McCall’s literal and emotional doorstep. The scales of justice tip toward evil and must be equalized. Before long, bad guys are walking quietly through hallways, holding assault rifles, giving military hand signals to each, and whispering “clear,” moments before Denzel starts making their limbs bend the wrong way.

Denzel Washington as Robert McCall. Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Denzel Washington tends to elevate nearly everything he comes in contact with, which is very fortunate for The Equalizer 2, a mostly copy-and-paste vigilante movie that offsets its typicalness by spending an unusual amount of time observing its central character away from the main plotline. Otherwise, the story’s rhythm reminds me of the second Jack Reacher movie, another merely passable sequel in which…actually I don’t remember much about that movie outside of a few killer action scenes and a handful of character beats that feature its charismatic main star. Which must be why it comes to mind.

The quantity of the movie’s side stories is perhaps more notable than their quality. The film’s numerous subplots involve McCall’s neighbors, all individuals on the margins: a young black man caving in to the economic allure of the drug trade, a Muslim woman accosted by xenophobic neighbors, an elderly retiree whose tale of loss is dismissed by the authorities as dementia. These vignettes aren’t handled with a ton of finesse; some of these characters are on screen just long enough to bluntly explain their needy situation. But taken as a whole they form a useful group portrait of the kinds of people in American society who could stand to benefit from some equalization.

Ashton Sanders as Miles Whittaker. Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Denzel has never been a transformative actor like, say, Daniel Day Lewis. Rather his special gift has always been putting the full range of his own humanity at the service of hyper-nuancing the characters he plays. It’s difficult to tell the difference between the real Denzel Washington and the fictional Robert McCall, but whoever that guy is on screen, he seems fully alive and present in his circumstances.

There are performance touches here that transcend the movie’s forgettable trappings. McCall’s day job turns him into a kind of redemptive mirror image of Robert de Niro’s troubled vigilante in Taxi Driver. As McCall observes his passengers in the rear mirror, we see the eyes of Denzel Washington in that small strip of glass, eyes that alternately radiate compassion for the weak, comradery with the noble, and doom for the wicked. Always a master of the little things, he turns the smallest gestures into insights. In one otherwise unmemorable scene, he lifts his arm well in advance of a handrail he’ll use to walk up a flight of steps. I’ve never seen an actor do that, but I’ve seen real humans do it in real life when they are preoccupied, as McCall is in that moment. Such is the subtle magic of Denzel.

Too bad the rest of the movie isn’t on his level. Screenwriter Richard Wenk’s script favors exposition over expression, and his dialogue often sounds wooden in the mouths of the supporting cast. The often ferocious Melissa Leo (returning as McCall’s friend/handler) and series newcomers Bill Pullman and Ashton Sanders (Moonlight) all struggle with Wenk’s blunt foreshadowing. Although the plot takes plenty of twists and turn, nothing intended as a surprise feels all that surprising.

Denzel Washington as Robert McCall. Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Olympus Has Fallen) is an action director at heart, with a talent for potent scenes of violence. EQ2 contains more than its share of killings, and while the people and circumstances vary in memorability, each moment is viscerally staged. Gunfire is often deafeningly loud in his films, and physical impacts fall hard upon the people receiving them. Fuqua seems to most relish moments where his heroes move with graceful and brutal professionalism, a preference that served him extremely well when spread among multiple characters in his last film, the under-appreciated popcorn remake of The Magnificent Seven. Here in EQ2, all the snap and smoothness is handed exclusively to Denzel; and while it’s always a blast to watch McCall dismantle the deserving, I found his general indestructibility to be a bit of a damper on the movie’s sense of danger.

Like the first film, Fuqua saves the real fireworks for the film’s dazzling finale, a stunning action set piece that, also like Equalizer one, is the film’s most unqualified triumph. Staged in an evacuated coastal town during a furious hurricane, the third act climax is a masterpiece of atmosphere and audio design. Sound and fury have always been Fuqua’s sweet spot. Aside from Denzel’s deadly decency (say that three times fast), the scene is the one thing about this theoretically welcome but only mildly recommended sequel that people will be talking about.

Star Rating: 3 out 5

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