It’s a credit to Denzel Washington’s career choices that he’s gone four decades without making a single sequel. That’s not to say that breaking the pattern with “The Equalizer 2” means he’s finally sold out (plenty of stars rely on franchises to balance out riskier one-off ventures), but nor does this particular project demonstrate much of a reason to justify wanting to return to the character of Robert McCall, other than a chance to work with “Training Day” director Antoine Fuqua for the fourth time.
Thing is, until Part 2 came along to top it, “The Equalizer” was a uniquely unpleasant action movie: a brutal, patience-testing bloodbath in which bad guys did nasty things to blue-collar Boston folks while dirty (white) cops looked the other way, only to have a single concerned citizen stand up and give them a taste of their own medicine. McCall politely knocked on the Russian mafia’s front door, offered to buy a battered hooker’s freedom, and when they refused the offer, rammed a shot glass into one guy’s eye socket and a corkscrew into another’s lower jaw. Later, he hanged a thug with barbed wire and shot another five times with a nail gun. Fun times.
“The Equalizer” climaxed with its villain screaming an incredulous, “Who arrrre you?” before taking a fatal blow to the neck. It was a fair question. Neither Fuqua nor screenwriter Richard Wenk (also back on this film) had bothered to provide much in the way of backstory for the character, an erstwhile government assassin turned vigilante. We could see that McCall had lost his wife, that he was paging his way through 100 essential novels in her memory, and that the only two people he could trust were a folksy couple played by Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo who had some connection to his shadowy past.
Whereas the 2014 movie served as an odd sort of origin story — the kind whose violent antihero had reinvented himself at least once before — “The Equalizer 2” does an unusual thing: Rather than power forward on the assumption that we know and understand this character, it circles back and gives McCall the chance to delve into the life he’d left behind, revealing details of his past that were frankly more interesting when left to the imagination (a testament to Washington’s ability to convey a tortured personal history without needing to provide the specifics).
It opens with a rescue mission somewhere near the Turkish border, as McCall, disguised as a devout Muslim and perusing a book too new to have made his wife’s required-reading list (Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me”), recovers a young girl kidnapped from his neighborhood. The Equalizer’s trademark is to click the stopwatch on his wrist and time how long it takes to dispatch three or four nasty henchmen. The answer: usually less than 30 seconds, which fly by in a blur, as he uses whatever objects happen to be within arm’s reach to seriously mutilate his adversaries.
In a rare show of restraint, Fuqua opts not to show what McCall does to the kidnapper himself, instead letting audiences imagine what the Equalizer meant when he said, “There are two types of pain in this world: pain that hurts and pain that alters.” Presumably, for McCall, losing his wife fell into the latter category. Where once he killed because his superiors told him to, now he answers only to his own conscience. He lives in a dumpy apartment and drives a Lyft, doing helpful errands for his favorite neighbors — like rescuing cats from trees and chauffeuring an elderly Holocaust survivor (Orson Bean) between the hospital and his retirement home.
But when some creepy rich kids call a Lyft to dispose of a battered young woman they evidently raped and disrespected, McCall pays a visit to their room, beeps his watch, and faster than you can say, “Time’s up,” has broken their wrists and slashed their faces with Daddy’s Platinum card. It’s gratifying to see such chauvinism checked, but nothing much makes sense in “The Equalizer 2” (least of all the decision to stage the finale in an abandoned seaside town as a hurricane rages all around).
If McCall’s M.O. is not taking credit for his deeds, doesn’t beating up Lyft customers sorta blow his cover? How did he find the money to track down that other creep on Turkish Railways? And where, after fighting off another disgruntled Lyft rider (this one doesn’t even bother to leave a bad review, but instead whips out a giant knife in the backseat), does he find a car to replace the one he set on fire?
Judging by the ponderous tone and pace, Fuqua thinks he’s making high art (likely aspiring to something existential like Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Samouraï”), but this is a grisly exploitation movie at best. Early on, he forces us to witness a harrowing execution in a posh Brussels apartment, where three sadists stage a murder-suicide for no apparent reason. The scene was clearly designed to score Fuqua points for sheer ruthlessness, later repeated in a tough-to-watch assault on Leo’s character in which two tweakers slam her around a hotel room (oddly, Pullman is rescued and promptly forgotten before the finale). Surely audiences deserve some kind of explanation for such nightmare-inducing imagery. The closest we ever get is a long conversation between McCall and his ex-partner (Pedro Pascal, a Chilean actor with the blunt-nosed profile of a young Marlon Brando) in which the pair hash out all that is wrong with the world.
And yet, amid such cynicism, McCall stops to coach Miles (Ashton Sanders), an at-risk teenager from his building, on making the right life choices. He hires the kid to repaint a mural defaced by graffiti (someone has scrawled the word “GANG” in bright red letters) and insists that he read Coates’ book (good advice for the movie’s target audience as well). The Equalizer is an enigma, simultaneously moralistic and homicidal. In order to save the lives of those on the margins, he is willing to snuff out those who endanger them. One thing’s for certain: You’ll never look at your Lyft driver the same way again.