'The Equalizer 2' coasts on Washington's charms
It seems every venerable actor of a certain age has got to have a trusty action franchise to fall back on these days. And for Denzel Washington, that's "The Equalizer" films, based on the '80s TV show about a former intelligence agent using his skills to help the less fortunate.
Directed by Antoine Fuqua, the 2014 film featured Washington demonstrating a facility with a hammer that made it so we'll never look at a Home Depot the same way. In "The Equalizer 2," the team of director Fuqua, writer Richard Wenk and Washington return for a sequel that coasts on its star's charisma.
"The Equalizer" films ask us to behold Washington's Robert McCall with a double consciousness. He's incredibly lethal, coldly and efficiently violent, as demonstrated in an prologue where he takes out an entire bar car of Turkish gangsters on a train. But he's fundamentally a do-gooder — all that Turkish murder? The gangsters were kidnappers, and McCall just wants to return the little girl home, no reward or plaudits necessary.
He reads Ta-Nehisi Coates and mentors local youths, helps Holocaust survivors discover their long-lost family connections, and, satisfyingly, beats up a suite full of entitled bankers after they sexually assault a woman. There's no newspaper ad this time; instead, McCall finds his clients while driving Lyft, whether they want his help or not.
In "The Equalizer 2," the community action storyline — a more touchy-feely version of "Death Wish," if you will — is privileged, and it's far more compelling than the flimsy, requisite international assassination conspiracy plot. This part of the story is tissue thin, and the plotting around it is frankly plodding. It's both slow and underwritten, making you think you're missing something. You're not.
But this time, it hits home for McCall, as his old friend Susan (Melissa Leo) runs into some trouble investigating a murder-suicide of a deep cover agent in Brussels, which kicks up a whole treasonous mess that McCall uncovers. Although he's long been thought dead, he reveals himself to his old partner, Dave (Pedro Pascal), and his re-emergence proves complicated. While McCall seeks those who went after Susan, he's pursued by a team of murderous mercs.
Washington is the best thing about "The Equalizer 2." Which is slightly unfair, because he's usually the best thing in any movie he's in, but he really keeps this one on the rails with his sheer magnetism, his unique ability to be charming and psychotic at the same time. But unlike a film like "Training Day," we know he's the good guy, even when he's calmly dispatching villains. Because he's Denzel and also because the film bends over backwards to remind us of his goodness.
The local teen he decides to save from a life of crime and violence this time around is Miles (Ashton Sanders), and the gang storyline is incredibly cheesy, a facsimile of every representation we've seen from "Boyz in the Hood" to "The Wire." Sanders, a promising talent who was stunning in "Moonlight," does the best he can with what he's given, which isn't much.
It's also ironic, considering McCall pulled the boy off the streets, only to get him mixed up in an international assassination ring, and then somehow, in the trunk of a car at a hurricane-swept seaside Massachusetts town. Truthfully, we're all wondering how we ended up in the midst of "The Hurricane Heist" in this completely inane climax.
Even with Washington at the top of his game, "The Equalizer 2" just doesn't deliver the thrills.
'THE EQUALIZER 2'
Cast: Denzel Washington, Melissa Leo, Pedro Pascal, Bill Pullman, Ashton Sanders.
Directed by Antoine Fuqua.
Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute.
Rated R for brutal violence throughout, language, and some drug content.