‘The Equalizer 2’ Film Review: Denzel Washington Returns as a Thinking Man’s Action Hero

All things being equalized, this sequel could have been worse

“The Equalizer 2” is getting a lot of press because it’s the first time that Denzel Washington has starred in a sequel to one of his own movies. You can infer a lot about Washington’s connection to this material from that one piece of information, and about his (apparently quite positive) ongoing working relationship with director Antoine Fuqua, who directed both “Equalizer” installments, as well as “Training Day” and the 2016 remake of “The Magnificent Seven.”

But perhaps the most important takeaway is this: Never pick a fight with Denzel Washington. It’s been over two decades since the TV series “The Equalizer” debuted opposite Washington’s hit series “St. Elsewhere,” and now the actor has officially claimed the saga of ex-Black Ops assassin-turned-vigilante crime fighter Robert McCall for his own. The movies may be a mixed bag, but Washington brings his all to “The Equalizer 2.”

The first “Equalizer” was a stylish, brutal and overlong action thriller starring Washington as McCall, a grieving widower who uses his special set of skills to exact vengeance for a victimized teenage prostitute (Chloe Grace Moretz). The action was thrilling but the real draw was Washington himself, who played McCall as an introverted obsessive-compulsive, setting the hero apart from most other action icons.

McCall returns in “The Equalizer 2,” and he’s as laconic and emotionally scarred as ever. McCall now works as a Lyft driver, and when his passengers are in trouble he uses his special set of skills to help them out. In one scene, he beats up a whole roomful of privileged rich white kids who just put a woman in the hospital and thought they could get away with it. McCall slices them up with their own credit cards, and when he leaves he says, “I expect a five-star rating, you understand?”

It’s easy to see why Washington is committed to the character of McCall. He’s lived a long, painful life and he wants to prevent others from walking down similar, violent paths. Or worse, from being abused by other, similar, violent people. McCall takes it upon himself to be a positive role model for a young artist, Miles, played by Ashton Sanders (“Moonlight”). Miles is on the verge of joining a street gang, and McCall doesn’t just give him the big speech about how “Man ain’t spelled G-U-N.” He also gives him a copy of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me.” He’s a classy good guy.

“The Equalizer 2,” like the previous film, isn’t just a single episode in McCall’s life. It’s as though screenwriter Richard Wenk worked overtime to catch McCall in the middle of several stories at once. McCall isn’t just trying to save a local teen from gangs. Over the course of the film he also has to find a missing painting for a Holocaust survivor, reunite a missing child with her mother, and avenge the death of his only remaining friend, Susan Plummer, played by Melissa Leo.

It’s nothing short of tragic to watch Melissa Leo get the same treatment Rinko Kikuchi suffered in “Pacific Rim Uprising,” in which a powerful female character from the original film gets downgraded in the sequel to an inciting agent for the male hero’s journey. Leo fights as best she can against her attackers, and against the filmmakers’ limited imagination for her character, but there’s only so much she can do.

On the top of it all, the revenge storyline is the least interesting part of “The Equalizer 2,” with its predictable twists and a tacked-on action climax, which takes place in the middle of a hurricane. You’d think that would be a problem but it doesn’t even stop McCall from making a run to the photocopy shop and wallpapering the alleyways with Melissa Leo’s headshots. It should be the most pulse-pounding scene in the movie. Instead it’s the most contrived.

McCall may be the thinking person’s action hero, but “The Equalizer” and “The Equalizer 2” aren’t quite as crafty as he is. The decision to treat these films as an adaptation of a whole season of a series is distinctive, and gives the film a satisfying “Netflix Marvel” personality.

But in “The Equalizer 2” that approach makes the film feel as though it lacks focus. The main plot gets sidelined too often and fails to ramp up, bogging down the pacing. Even an attempt to connect McCall personally and emotionally to the film’s villains gets sped through so quickly it feels like an afterthought.

“The Equalizer 2” makes more-or-less the same impact as “The Equalizer.” It’s a reasonably satisfying mid-budget action thriller, with slick style and an intriguing hero, who only uses violence when necessary, and as a means of redemption for himself and his community. Robert McCall is a great action hero, but all things being equalized, he deserves a better movie.

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