To the folks wondering why Denzel Washington would choose to make The Equalizer 2, director Antoine Fuqua’s weird-ass follow-up to his equally odd 2014 adaptation of the ’80s television series, as the first-ever sequel in his storied career: Has it ever occurred to you that the man might simply be having fun doing it?
Outside of the easy cash flow, it’s possible that Washington, an actor now known for his serious roles and persona on-and-off the screen, might delight in the opportunity to throw around a one-liner or two, or to have the chance to look intimidating on screen, which, as many 60-year-old action stars — Liam Neeson, Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, etc. — have discovered is especially potent as one grows older. In addition, Fuqua’s interpretation of the show’s story, realized to show a working-class badass tackling societal ills on a micro level, also gives its protagonist a chance to literally fix the world’s issues with nothing more than a slick attention to detail and years of combat training. Is it so hard to see why that might be appealing?
It seems that Fuqua and Washington are on the same page here, as well, as each is committed to making this a more thoroughly entertaining film than the first, which essentially played as Goth Jack Reacher (an approach that most definitely had its own charms) but had a bit too much gristle between the bites of Joy Division-via-Moby-soaked steak for its own good. It’s a good 30-minutes shorter than the original and, though it takes its time getting to the main plot, The Equalizer 2 is ultimately the more satisfying watch.
Gone is the Home Depot where former Marine and CIA badass Robert McCall (Washington) worked until the Russian Mob pissed him off, and McCall has now taken to the streets as a Lyft driver (I know, lol) where he observes the people of Boston from in the backseat of his car, taking in their successes and failures and moments of small-time bravery, occasionally intervening with his own brand of justice. This approach works a little better — and more expediently — than in the workplace drama that made up the first half of the last one, and we don’t have to sit through two hours of “mystery” to get to the point. When his former boss (Melissa Leo) is murdered in Europe, McCall comes out of the cold and reveals himself to his old partner York (Pedro Pascal), vowing to hunt down the men who killed his “only friend.”
Washington is a beacon of stability once again, though he’s given funnier material to work with this time around (there are solid laughs to be had all throughout the course of the film), and his supporting cast performs amiably as well. Even the cheesiest moments are pulled off in an admirably goofy way, like in McCall’s mentorship of Miles (Moonlight’s Aston Sanders), a young street hustler who lives in McCall’s apartment complex and has dreams of becoming an artist. It’s very fertile ground for some silly shit, but ultimately it comes off more charming than not, thanks to the work put in by Washington and Sanders, who are both reasonably witty and prevent these moments from becoming truly maudlin.
More importantly, Fuqua’s skill as an action director has grown considerably since 2014, and despite his stumbles with the much larger scope of The Magnificent Seven, his small-scale filmmaking has only gotten stronger (his setting is more throughly realized and recognizable as Boston, as well, set in now what is roughly recognizable as Roxbury). There isn’t the visual flair of something like Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films in McCall’s dissection of any given scenario, but there is enough there to make us pay attention to the details in the scene in a way not that dissimilar from the way a magician lets you see the cards in a deck before blowing your mind with a trick.
A fight on a Turkey-bound train at the start of the film has shades of From Russia With Love in its execution, though McCall would have probably just thrown Red Grant straight out of the train as opposed to the no-holds-barred approach that Bond took to their encounter, and the final fight between our protagonist and a group of highly-trained soldiers in the midst of a hurricane/nor’easter/big-ass storm on the South Shore easily tops the slasher-style Home Depot finale of the first. My audience let out screams every time McCall went to start his watch (a key indicator that some shit is gonna go down), given that they knew that something good was about to happen, and they were never once disappointed.
There’s a term often used to describe the comics of writer Warren Ellis, amongst plenty of other artists, who is often characterized as writing “competence porn,” where the highly skilled and intelligent protagonists he creates are given nearly impossible situations to resolve and where the thrills come from watching the highly-specialized do their jobs at the very best of their ability. Action and thriller fans know this particular feeling very well — it’s why we like Batman and the aforementioned Sherlock Holmes as well — but it’s also why we enjoy watching people like Tom Brady or Ronda Rousey or LeBron James go to work. The stakes in almost all of these cases are huge to someone, regardless if matter if they actually matter to the world order.
I think where The Equalizer 2 succeeds is that, if something like The Dark Knight or John Wick are full-body massages, Fuqua’s film is the competence porn equivalent of a playlist of pimple-popping or ASMR Youtube videos. It’s satisfying to watch the ills of our fair city get righted in the most minor of ways, one after the other, even if there’s not much there textually or anything surprising lying for you in the wings, and I think there’s a societal niche for this particular kind of action film that grows more attractive with the increasing bombast of the modern blockbuster landscape.
So, yeah, put that shit on the poster, Sony: “The Equalizer 2: As Satisfying As Watching an Ear Wax Removal On Reddit At Three in the Morning.” It’s a compliment.