For the record, I thought The Equalizer released in 2014 was a decent outing for Denzel Washington and Antoine Fuqua. It’s a fun if not totally memorable excuse to see Denzel kick wholesale ass at a Home Depot based on an 80s TV show no one really remembers either and something one wouldn’t necessarily expect a franchise out of. Well, I guess we should have known better, as this one serves as an excuse to reunite Washington and Fuqua after also doing The Magnificent Seven remake together and the 2001 crime flick Training Day, the latter of which netted Denzel an Oscar. And while sequels have been built on far less, The Equalizer 2 isn’t exactly the kind of film one would hope from Denzel Washington’s first sequel ever. And no, his 2013 film 2 Guns is not a sequel to a film called “1 Gun.” While the pieces are all still there from the first installment, including supporting roles from Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo, The Equalizer 2 can’t help but feel almost lackadaisical and like everyone involved is merely picking up a paycheck and don’t actually care about solidifying a trilogy. Sure, there’s a climactic scene that’s really trying to measure up with the first film’s, but aside from that there’s really not a whole lot on display that would even give an action junkie the opportunity to swoon. The story is lacking, the performances are emotionless, and the fight sequences won’t do enough from keeping you from falling asleep in between.
Still living in Boston, Massachusetts, Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) is continuing to spend his retirement from the CIA black ops unit working odd jobs by day – here as a Lyft driver – and as an instrument of justice by night, providing protection to the weak, intervening wherever he sees fit. Meanwhile, McCall’s friend Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo) begins to investigate a murder-suicide in Brussels, Belgium, which she quickly begins to deduce was an assassination only meant to be staged that way. Realizing they’re about to be uncovered, the men responsible aim to crack down on Susan and even her husband Brian (Bill Pullman) if they have to. What they didn’t anticipate however is Robert McCall still being alive, and that he’ll do whatever it takes to protect his friends. He’ll even call upon the help of his former partner Dave York (Pedro Pascal), who may be the key to knowing who’s behind these villainous deeds, and how they might all just share the same background.
That’s essentially the gist of the whole shebang. And if it sounds light on plot for a two-hour movie, that’s because it is. Oftentimes The Equalizer 2 seems more interested in developing subplots than actually progressing the main source of conflict. Seriously, I didn’t know what the plot was going to be about until nearly forty minutes into the thing. When he’s not handing out ass-whoopings, McCall’s interacting with the likes of Sam Rubinstein (Orson Bean), an older client of his that for some reason has character development that provides no substance to the story at large. However, much of the runtime is devoted to a young, would-be gangbanger living in McCall’s apartment complex by the name of Miles Whittaker (Asthon Sanders), whom McCall attempts to provide some fatherly advice to and keep him on the path of success rather than self-destruction. Now, Sanders does good work at being the moral center of the film, and makes his inclusion into the story feel more natural than it otherwise would. He even gets one of the film’s few nerve-wracking scenes about two-thirds of the way in. Yet by the time the climax rolls around his character is used solely as a plot device and an added complication for McCall as he simultaneously confronts the main villains of the story. Not to mention the many nuances that made the Miles character somewhat compelling are swiftly simplified for the sake of a quick conclusion. As far as further comparisons with the original film are concerned, however, I suppose The Equalizer 2 is similarly shaky in the story department. The only major gripe I had with the first Equalizer was that for a while McCall’s motivations was to seek justice against those who had harmed Chloë Grace Moretz’s prostitute character or something, before going off on an entirely other tangent, and then by the time she reappeared toward the conclusion I’d completely forgotten about her. That’s similarly the problem with The Equalizer 2, in that it doesn’t know what it wants to be about, and so by the time the movie feels like there has been a change undergone, we’re left to wonder what that even entailed to begin with.
Having said all that, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that one sees a Denzel Washington movie first and foremost for Denzel Washington. He has perhaps the strongest screen presence among working actors, be he chewing the dialogue or scenery in Fences or offing dudes left and right while expounding biblical text like a blind ninja in The Book of Eli. Either way, there’s got to be a level of bravado coming from him that’s worthy of his low register and expressive features. And though there are flashes of that in The Equalizer 2, they are in increasingly short supply. Seriously, most everyone on-screen here looks bored, Denzel included. I partly attribute that to screenwriter Richard Wenk, who so far still doesn’t realize what the franchise needs to be. Still, I can’t help but feel that Fuqua’s also at fault here, being that he’s the director with a background in high-flying action films who yet can’t seem to inject just an ounce of vitality into his latest project. Now, I’m surely willing to give the benefit of the doubt to these proven talents, as likely they’re just going for the solemn, almost under-the-surface approach to Robert McCall and who he is as an action hero, yet given the puzzle pieces they all had to play with, it makes one question why they keep insisting on going against the grain. If we want layered Denzel, we’ll go back to Malcolm X or even Flight. For now, however, when we want take-no-prisoners Denzel, Fuqua should be the one to deliver on that principle.
And addressing the action sequences alone, they are relatively passable. Fuqua’s such a good kinetic filmmaker that he can probably do this in his sleep, which unfortunately he might have done here. Still, what hand-to-hand combat that is on-screen is well choreographed and confident. Fuqua tends to rely on slow-motion perhaps a bit more than he should, and said sequences don’t last as long as they should or have the consequence that they should, but if you’re sole purpose here is to see Fuqua and Washington play another thrilling game of cinematic patty cake, then you could do a whole lot worse. The movie tries to one-up the first film’s Home Depot finale with a storm-battered, coastal fishing village playground fight between Washington and company, and mostly succeeds. You may want to temper your expectations if you’re looking for an unpredictable climax, but cinematographer Oliver Wood does a good enough job at capturing the setting and amping up the ruthlessness of McCall.
All in all, The Equalizer 2 doesn’t do nearly enough to retain audience attention. Even with the likes of Leo, Pullman and Pascal backing up the star, none of them are able to feign interest in a film that exists more for monetary inspiration rather than creative ones. I’m not saying that the franchise can’t dust itself off and rebound in completing the trilogy, but as far as The Equalizer 2 is concerned, this might just be a venture that was perhaps better left off being a solo adventure.
Final Score: 3/10