As an action blockbuster, the first Equalizer picture had about as much stamina as the good-hearted, overweight cop who couldn’t pull a tire twenty yards; if you don’t remember who this is referencing, you’re only making my point. Sure, it made a lot of money – just surpassing the $100 million mark at the domestic box office – but by the time John Wick came out a month later, and a small beagle proved that he could incite as much passion and chaos as any character in The Equalizer, the Denzel movie became irrelevant. And as far as I know, for the four years since its release, it’s stayed that way, a fact that makes the actor’s decision to partake in The Equalizer 2, the first sequel of his career, even more questionable.
The 2014 film, which was loosely based on the ‘80s television series of the same name, chronicled an under-the-radar man who allowed his certain set of skills to unleash themselves once again for a worthy cause. Sure, Robert McCall (Washington) is not the first character to look over the little man, and he certainly won’t be the last, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t fun every once in a while to see some deserving someone bite the dust.
But it wasn’t just the bloody acts of vengeance that made The Equalizer as appealing as it kind of was. McCall helped people; people he was never able to get too close to given his past life as a CIA operative, but close enough that he could step back and smile at the results of his ferocious, but good-natured deeds. Unfortunately for us, director Antoine Fuqua – who not only directed Denzel in 2014, but also in The Magnificent Seven and Training Day as well – seemed to think that the blood was the only thing worth bringing to the sequel.
As The Equalizer 2 starts up on a railway heading towards Turkey, the neighborhood-protecting ambience of the first film, which played out exclusively in Boston, is already dropped (don’t worry, we’ll be carelessly thrown all around the world during this one). McCall still lives in Boston, though he seems to have stopped working at the hardware store since leaving a cluster of dead Russian mobsters strewn about its warehouse.
Now, he’s a Lyft driver, and for a while it feels like we’ll get our story through one of these random encounters. But instead of taking that route, which could have supplied McCall with a far more intriguing call to duty, Richard Wenk’s screenplay makes the rather lazy decision to base McCall’s kill streak on the avenging of a friend, Susan (Melissa Leo), who was barely in the last one and is killed here while investigating a mysterious murder-suicide in Brussels.
The first Equalizer made it seem like McCall had to knock the dust off of his gun before helping out his young friend. But in the sequel, it seems like he hasn’t put it down since then. Fuqua and Wenk fail in creating a quest worthy of excusing McCall’s actions this time around; he’s a vigilante with a gun, plain and simple. Though the young prostitute was in the last film, the parallels between this and Taxi Driver are unsettling. Part of me wonders if McCall’s new job doesn’t second as a means of discovering who he’s going after next.
This is all, of course, the result of the mishandling of a somewhat redeemable character; Fuqua just managed to do it four years ago, but doesn’t even come close here. But I would imagine that’d be difficult with Wenk’s joke of a script, a host to a collection of lame characters, zero suspense and revenge-movie clichés that’s occasionally interrupted by a half-assed subplot involving McCall’s young neighbor (Ashton Sanders) – all of which serves as nothing more than a reminder that Robert is still a caregiver to the neighborhood. If it was also used to convince Denzel that this was not another Death Wish movie, I wouldn’t be surprised.
Even the action is unattractive – the scene in which Leo’s character meets her end is particularly disturbing. With his knives, his guns, and the ingenuity he displayed in the warehouse, McCall kills a lot of people, most of the time very grotesquely. Of course, violence is to be expected in a film along these lines, but for a character with the supposed wit of McCall’s, it’d be nice to see something other than a headshot every once in a while. Like the last one, an attempt is made in the film’s final act, a five-to-one gun battle in the midst of a hurricane, but as you can imagine, that falls apart, too.
The only thing worse than watching this wretched pile of garbage is knowing that it will probably do ok at the box office – surely a result of the trust Denzel has earned from his fans. It’s a shame to see Washington’s acclaimed career be used like this, but this is in no way saying that The Equalizer 2 signifies his career hanging in the balance. He’s Denzel. He’ll be fine.
This time around, Denzel’s “Equalizer” is less of a Robin Hood-like hero for the helpless, and more of a Travis Bickle-like vigilante, shooting his way through a murder caper that has neither the incentive nor the heart of its already forgettable precursor.