The Equalizer 2
Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Starring Denzel Washington, Pedro Pascal, Melissa Leo, and Bill Pullman
Reber’s Rating – B+
There’s something to be said when both director Antoine Fuqua and actor Denzel Washington have never made a sequel to any of their respective films. Both men have remained adamant over the course of their careers that no project warrants a sequel without the proper premise. Fuqua could have helmed London Has Fallen, the 2016 sequel to the director’s surprise hit Olympus Has Fallen, but passed due to his hatred of the script. (Smart man, that sequel was a snoozer.) Washington too has passed on sequels time and again as well, citing his disinterest in revisiting any of his characters. Yet here we are, we’re in 2018, and the duo together have finally decided to commit to their first sequel.
2014’s The Equalizer was a modest success in theaters but found profitability on home video. The big screen remake of Michael Sloan’s 1985 to 1989 CBS crime thriller was more of Robert McCall’s origin tale. On the television show McCall was a former CIA spook, shacking up in New York City helping those in need when law enforcement was of no assistance. Also, McCall was British – why a Brit was with the CIA was never explained, nor needed to be either – and his former partner, Mickey, assisted time and again. Denzel’s McCall is a whole other beast. Taking up residence in Boston and working for a large hardware retailer, McCall’s death is faked to retire him from being an asset in the field. Only his former boss and her husband know of his existence, the rest of his former colleagues and friends unaware McCall still stalks the shadows. Fuqua’s origin film was nothing fancy, but Washington’s performance was gritty and an utter delight to revel in across repeat viewings, understanding McCall’s machinations that keep him breathing each day.
Following the sour taste in my mouth from last week’s Skyscraper, my worry was that audiences would get two clunkers in back-to-back weekends. The theatrical trailers for The Equalizer 2 were nothing to write home about, more of McCall doling out his brand of retribution and indomitable vengeance onto faceless foes who have erred from morality. I surmised that the best scenes were highlighted in the trailers, a wide variety of settings and scenes showcased that needed to reel in theatergoers. Nevertheless, my appreciation for the slow-burning 2014 thriller has only grown and missing The Equalizer in theaters has always been a regret of mine. (I discovered the film as a blind buy and kicked myself silly afterwards.) So, does Antoine Fuqua and Denzel Washington’s sequel hold a candle to their last pairing? Has the four-year wait been worthwhile?
Surprisingly yes. This mid-summer thriller offers the boldness and tenacity that Skyscraper surely lacked, a taut thriller that overcomes a plodding first act and familiar plot to deliver a carefully-crafted riveting joyride that takes time to strengthen and ennoble its characters. While Fuqua’s film does move at a leisurely pace The Equalizer 2 succeeds because you have to invest time with flesh-and-blood characters, the relationship development deservedly the most important factor in creating a frenetic mesmerizing thriller that doesn’t relent until the credits. The only downfall is that the film has a little bit of a been-there/done-that feeling at every turn, the flawed characters overcoming a shallow story that could have derailed The Equalizer 2 before the action even starts.
Not to say that Richard Wenk’s script is lackluster. If anything, Wenk (The Mechanic and The Expendables 2) seems to have learned from his shortcomings from the 2014 film and seeded some surprises along the way. The beginning of The Equalizer 2 feels a bit directionless, stringing together a series of unfortunate events that require McCall’s special set of skills. McCall whisks away to Turkey to rescue a kidnapped child from her brutish father, only to come home to take an elderly Jewish retiree to a copy shop and bond with the elder gentleman. We then follow McCall as he takes down an apartment of Millennial sleazeballs (as featured heavily in the film’s marketing), only to halt the pacing with McCall’s doting of a young student (Ashton Sanders) in his apartment complex needing guidance. While throwing a rash of differing scenes and paces throws the first act into an fluky chaotic affair, there actually is a rhyme and reason for these stories that does tie together towards the finale
Waiting out those answers is what keeps you around, your curiosity aroused about the point of certain players. Sure, at the core of The Equalizer 2 is a plot we’ve all seen before. Protagonist’s best friend is murdered, protagonist seeks revenge to assuage his frenzied desires for wrath. With a cast this small in this sequel, pinpointing what actor plays what stereotypical character is straightforward. Even Wenk is aware you cannot re-invent the wheel anymore. The screenwriter instead readjusts the focus off of the story and onto humanizing Robert McCall more than the brooding contemplative man introduce previously. McCall, accustomed to his placid lifestyle with his daily routine passing by like clockwork, has his life thrown off the tracks, becoming downright obsessive in his pursuit for justice. Mentor Susan Plummer was the best and only friend McCall had in life, the sole person from the intelligence world knowing his death was faked. McCall spirals away from his solitude, blood lust settling in, his compassion for those around him becoming heightened. If running into a drug overlord’s house to save a single soul means his demise, then McCall would go out no other way.
Moreover, and only hinted upon in the entry film to this franchise, we have the veiled peeled back slightly more regarding Vivian, McCall’s wife. Adding another layer to sympathize with the former spook certainly goes the extra distance. There are reasons why McCall swears by a daily routine, every aspect of his life from morning to night living by seconds and minutes on a watch face. Everything in his home has a place, facing in a particularized direction or in alignment. Some would call it Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I call it a man’s way of coping with the death of his wife and bottling up his grief. McCall will not make the same mistake twice. Even errantly veering off his schedule, whilst having consequences, is measured by a calculated unit of time. As McCall descends further into his personal investigation, his careful and concise life delves into disarray, his tidy apartment littered with stacks of photos and documents. Though McCall never addressed his wife’s passing, he instead takes the fervor meant for her decease and becomes ensnared in matters that don’t require his attention.
Without Denzel’s casting of Robert McCall, then The Equalizer would lack the same raw emotion that Washington brings to the role. Anyone can stare at the screen and blink their eyes blankly, impede upon the evil that occupies what could be a perfect world, but where’s the fun in that? Washington invests more of his powerhouse acting chops for this sequel, further humanizing McCall and wrapping audiences up in a complex compelling character. His McCall may have removed himself from everyday society for the most part but is driven by such a burning passion that the feeling is infectious. His past life haunts him, the atrocities committed in the name of his country, so McCall desires to bring out the best in others to repay his penance. He may keep his distance from those, yet maintains an empathetic and genuine concern from those around him. Denzel has always had such an affable way to connect with characters – Training Day, Flight, Philadelphia. All Oscar heavyweights. Each is very unique and different from another. His acting prowess brings a real sense of realism and emotion to what could have been a lifeless clone of any other action hero. The long stares, the raw varying waves of emotion, even the simple and close-quarter fisticuffs, Denzel brings a pedigree to The Equalizer 2 than other franchises wish they had at their employ.
I also understand that people may be put off by McCall’s violence tendencies. The 1980’s television show was a thinking man’s type of show, with star Edward Woodward’s masterful portrayal of Robert McCall more of a detective who used violence as a last resort. His McCall was much more like Sherlock Holmes than Jason Bourne, using his intelligence and deduction to solve cases. The brutality in The Equalizer 2 isn’t as gruesome as other films. (Eli Roth’s Death Wish was much bloodier in retrospect.) Fuqua’s film is much like its predecessor, developing flesh-and-blood characters in order to build tension and drama. The faceless villains aren’t as generic as other thrillers either, the idea that the people around you every day are the monsters of the world. McCall’s way to handle such men is methodical and precise, knowing the proper bones to rattle and snap almost like a ballet dance by way of black ops training. Anyone can kill with a gun but McCall is much more clever than those who are armed. Even I’ll admit, despite the grind to build the tension across the 121-minute run time, the action scenes are downright barbarous. McCall maintains composure in combat, his crackerjack artistry able to fend off foes by using anything much in the room. If you think John Wick is a whiz with guns then Robert McCall is his contemporary, except not needing a firearm to compose a bloody symphony of slaughter.
The Equalizer 2 in the end is a sequel I didn’t think was necessary, yet makes for a pleasant two-hour trip away from the doldrums of July. This isn’t the sort of thriller where you check your brain at the door, no no. You’ll actually find yourself rattling your brain to figure out how all of the subplots tie together. How McCall will end up both honoring his late friend’s passing and leading a young man onto a righteous path. Sure, a plot about revenge has been seen many times before, the same exact characters swirling around the same situation. Yet Antoine Fuqua, alongside Denzel Washington, is able to weave a compelling narrative of a man filled with such rage that his life grinds to a halt, his mania in solving a case having no bounds. The action is jarring, the cast shines with their talents, and The Equalizer 2 turns out to be a real fortuitous treat in a praisable sequel worthy for both Fuqua and Denzel’s credits.