Let me tell you all about a man named Robert McCall. He’s a mild-mannered gentleman who spends his days as a friendly Lyft driver and his nights alone in his humble studio apartment reading Proust.
When some ruffians deface a mural on the side of his apartment building, he’ll quietly spend the next few days scraping off the spray paint with a tiny sponge. When he notices a young man from the neighborhood falling in with an unscrupulous crowd, he’ll offer the troubled kid a job and take him under his wing. McCall exhibits a bottomless compassion toward others at every turn. He’s a champion of the voiceless and an avenger for the oppressed. He also has no problem dispensing swift and brutal justice that will leave a nameless thug with his intestines hanging out. He’s a murderous psychopath with the most tender of hearts.
As you can see, both installments of The Equalizer are shamelessly stupid. When I caught the original shortly after its theatrical run, I was surprised by how delightfully stupid — and hilariously gruesome — it was. The finale, essentially an R-rated Home Alone with Denzel Washington booby-trapping a bunch of Russian baddies, was a real howler and a great schlock setpiece.
So it shouldn’t be difficult for returning director Antoine Fuqua to recapture the modest pleasures of the original. All we actually need from these movies is Denzel layin’ on the charm and inflicting ultraviolence on myriad faceless goons. Sadly, The Equalizer 2 chooses to spend most of its time bogged down in a stunningly bland conspiracy plot and only delivers on its (admittedly sturdy) action in infrequent spurts. It’s a shame, as there’s clearly a good B-movie buried underneath this dull mess.
Things start off promisingly enough, as we see McCall continuing to equalize folks. The opening scene in particular is an effective showcase for Fuqua’s action direction. Unlike the majority of today’s mainstream actioners, the fight choreography is clear and totally comprehensible, with a refreshing lack of quick cuts and shaky camera movements. We’re reintroduced to McCall on a train, disguised in a pube beard and kippah, as he dispatches several kidnappers with brutal creativity.
It still seems Fuqua is intent on bringing the goods in the next scene when we watch McCall take down a fresh-faced yuppie by slicing the man’s face with his own credit card. This movie should really just be the Punisher as a Lyft driver, and it could have been a genuine trashterpiece. Then, something dire happens: The plot kicks in and everything grinds to a staggering halt. It involves the murder of a female government agent, who’s a friend of McCall’s, and the unnecessarily convoluted conspiracy that unfolds. There’s not much of a point getting further into it than that. Needless to say, the film puts the audience through a lot of mind-numbing drudgery before we see McCall get his inevitable revenge.
I had a hard time discerning whether the narrative was truly difficult to interpret or if I was too bored to try and follow it. Nearly an hour is spent on scenes with characters we don’t care about, talking in offices about the nuances of a case about which we care even less. Meanwhile, there are many, many shots of Denzel looking pensive and brooding as he plays detective. It’s as if Fuqua doesn’t understand the appeal of his own films, opting for self-seriousness when he should be embracing the absurd.
There are a few moments of goofy fun here and there: I especially enjoyed when Denzel goes off on an adolescent gang member and screams, “MAN is not spelled G-U-N!” Fuqua even attempts to one-up the finale of the first film by setting this one in an abandoned town amid a clunky CG hurricane. Sure, there’s some decent gore via a dude getting harpooned in the face, but it’s a case of too little too late.
The Equalizer 2 is sleek and expensive-looking, but set aside the star power and it’s virtually indistinguishable from a tepid TNT drama you might half-watch on the treadmill at your gym. In fact, that just might be the ideal way to watch it.