The first Equalizer (2014) was no shining addition to Washington’s resume but had some aspirations to classiness. Director Antoine Fuqua’s movie was adapted from the 80s CBS television series starring Edward Woodward, in turn inspired by the 60s western series, Have Gun — Will Travel, with its chivalric hero, Paladin.
(In the first Equalizer, the protagonist, Robert McCall, was busy reading the top 100 novels in memory of his late wife so, between the action sequences, it was fun to glimpse of the covers: The Old Man and the Sea, Invisible Man, Don Quixote. “He’s a knight in a world where knights don't exist anymore,” Robert explains.
The first film showcased cinematographer Mauro Fiore’s moody low-rent Boston locales as the backdrop for Washington’s Zen-like cool. Serious actors like co-stars Melissa Leo and Bill Pullman had arty aspirations. True, they couldn’t erase the bad taste of the imbecilic Bourne-meets-Death Wish plot and crude, sadistic violence. But there was a base here to be improved upon.
For the first half-hour or so in the new movie, things look promising. When we first meet Robert in this second film, he has given up his home hardware sales job to work as a Lyft driver, helping a more diverse customer base and nodding wryly at the flow of humanity, including some sad cases. For example, a Holocaust survivor (Orson Bean, now 89) in search of his sister, a young woman who has been sexually assaulted by a group of coke-snorting frat-boy financial types. Boy, do they regret it!
Back at his humble apartment complex, Robert keeps a protective eye on the head-scarf-wearing Muslim woman who tends her vegetable garden, and bonds with the teenaged kid Miles (Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders), an aspiring artist who’s at risk of getting involved with drug dealers.
All this is generally enjoyable because Washington is so engaging, wry, and watchful, so when he does explode, it’s dynamic. He’s a convincing cranky dad, putting the messed-up world in order.
Then Richard Wenk’s script seems to get bored with its own humbleness and runs off in pursuit of more glamorous global action. When Robert’s perky former boss, Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo) gets murdered in a Brussels hotel room where she had travelled with fellow agent (Pedro Pascal of the Netflix series, Narcos), Robert sets out to discover the identity of the killer, which turns out to be far too obvious.
In the interim, there’s lots of air travel, city skylines, gory assassinations and double-crosses, punctuated by scenes of Robert standing over piles of bad guys groaning and bleeding out on the carpet. Why this kind of film needs Denzel Washington rather than, say, a more familiar punching bag like Steven Seagal is hard to fathom.
The Equalizer doesn’t entirely lose it until its climax, a preposterous cat-and-mouse game which takes in a coastal Massachusetts town in the middle of a hurricane, allowing characters to yell threats and insults at each in gale-force winds amid flying clutter. There’s a point where the action defies the laws of physics: McCall, hiding out in a bakery, turns on two large fans blow flour about. The problem is, we already know the whole town’s power is out because of the storm.
Robert’s superhuman reflexes, slow-motion vision, and talent for weaponizing household objects might possibly be explained by his years of espionage training. I just hadn’t expected that The Equalizer was also an electric generator.
The Equalizer 2. Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Written by Richard Wenk. Starring Denzel Washington, Melissa Leo, Ashton Sanders, and Pedro Pasqual. Opens wide July 20.