The Equalizer 2

(2018) ** R
121 min. Columbia Pictures. Director: Antoine Fuqua. Cast: Denzel Washington, Melissa Leo, Pedro Pascal, Bill Pullman.

/content/films/5119/1.jpgIn a marketplace with dwindling opportunities outside of genre films, the Taken franchise proved that an aging serious actor like Liam Neeson could be repurposed by sticking a gun in his hand, assigning him a “special set of skills,” and sending him on a mission of vigilante justice. And so it should come as little surprise that Denzel Washington has made the first sequel of his career, reteaming with director Antoine Fuqua for The Equalizer 2.

Fuqua directed Washington to a Best Actor Oscar in 2001’s Training Day, and while the Equalizer films don’t offer that kind of juicy material, it’s clear enough that each man feels in good hands with the other. Washington reprises his role as Robert McCall, an ex-CIA agent who faked his death and went underground but just can’t help himself from being a supreme do-gooder wherever and whenever he sees injustice. Now a kindly Lyft driver tooling around Boston, McCall runs into trouble enough to keep him busy locally, but as the film’s opening sequence demonstrates, he’ll go as far as Turkey to recover a kidnapped child if no one else will.

McCall remains a fastidious brute who times his beat-downs on his digital watch, an unintentional symbol of how the Equalizer films smugly relish violence. When someone questions one of his acts of goodness, McCall explains, “Anyone could do it, but nobody does.” As McCall’s helpful Agency contact (Melissa Leo) tells him, “It’s great helping all these random people and everything, but it’s not gonna fill that hole in your heart,” adding, “I’m the only friend you’ve got.” Soon, McCall must avenge someone not so random, a task that finds him seeking help from old kill-team cohorts like Dave York (Pedro Pascal of Game of Thrones).

By implication, this vigilante thriller suggests intriguing questions about the moral and ethical imperatives of justice, and where lines should be drawn. In practice, The Equalizer 2 answers these questions with an Old Testament zeal: evil must be smitten by self-appointed good men. The closest the film gets to a philosophical statement is the negative example of the bad guy, a nihilist who insists, “There are no good or bad people anymore. No enemies. There is no sin. No virtue.” Tell that to “The Equalizer”! Oh, he just did.

There’s one example of positive virtue signaling: McCall remains a voracious reader, and the first book spotted in his hands is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, a reflection on the social and institutional threats to African-Americans throughout our history. More so than the cheap inclusion of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (a nod to McCall’s haunted memory of his late wife), Coates’ book has thematic relevance here, partly in looking askance at institutions like “The Agency” and more directly by teeing up one of the film’s corny subplots, McCall’s paternal mentoring of an otherwise wayward black youth (Ashton Sanders of Moonlight).

Each of the silly neighborhood subplots could well come from a weekly episode of the 1980s CBS TV series on which these films are based, but the best aspects of The Equalizer 2 are cinematic in scale: a standout stunt sequence involving a truly dangerous backseat driver, a ghost-town climax that evokes a Western showdown, and Washington himself, whose subtleties elevate the dopey material to Threat Level Watchable.

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