Why did it have to be “The Equalizer”? Of all the films that Denzel Washington has made over the years, it’s the first to get a sequel. Of all the indelible characters that Denzel Washington has brought to life on camera, widowed vigilante Robert McCall is the first he’s ever reprised. In this day and age, that’s a rare testament to the integrity and resolve of contemporary American cinema’s most forceful star — a star who’d rather leave it all on the field than come back for seconds, who’d sooner lead a four-hour Eugene O’Neill drama than take an easy paycheck. After almost 40 years of iconic performances on stage and screen, there’s really no reason to begrudge Washington for betting on one sure thing; the guy is 63, still acting his ass off, and less than two years removed from adapting an August Wilson play into an Oscar-winning hit. But why the hell did it have to be “The Equalizer”?
Why not “John Q 2″? It’s not as if we ever figured out that whole “healthcare” thing. Why not “The Manchurian Candidate 2″? It’s more relevant than ever! Why not “The Taking of Pelham 456,” or “The Greater Debaters”? “3 Guns”? “He Still Got Game”? “Déjà Vu All Over Again”!? Literally anything else. The good news is that the fans of Antoine Fuqua’s “The Equalizer” — a bland and pulpy 2014 riff on the ’80s TV series of the same name — are in for more of the same. The bad news is that the rest of us are, too.
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Even though “The Equalizer 2” essentially picks up where the previous film left off, that doesn’t make its opening sequence any less bizarre. This dull and unfocused sequel begins in the middle of the night aboard a sleeper train as it slings across rural Turkey. Retired CIA operative (and current Lyft driver) Robert McCall, disguised as a Muslim beneath a kufi and a very fake beard, follows some human traffickers into the bar car. It’s unclear what the costume is supposed to accomplish (“oh shit, the Lyft driver who took us to Logan Airport is here: Kill him!!”), but Robert obviously equalizes the hell out of the bad guys. It’s a clunky and uninspired bit of violence in a movie that’s full of clunky and uninspired bits of violence, but the beatdown is enough to remind us that Robert doesn’t just kick someone’s ass, he glares at them the whole time with a glint of moral fury; the people he equalizes die knowing they deserved it.
Anyway, none of that really matters, as most of the action in “The Equalizer 2” hits our hero a bit closer to home. The first installment followed Robert’s transformation into Boston’s very own Batman — lost in the wake of his wife’s death, and haunted by the black ops missions from his past, he found new purpose in righting the wrongs that other people wouldn’t.
The sequel finds that Robert has kept himself busy, using Lyft to exact some measure of local justice. He takes an old man to the store every week. He shuttles a traumatized intern to the hospital, and then makes sure the douche bros who abused her pay for their crimes (and give him a five-star rating for the extra service). He keeps a mindful eye on Miles (“Moonlight” breakout Ashton Sanders), a bright teen in his apartment complex who’s vulnerable to gang activity in the area. Sensitive but on the brink of surrender, Sanders gives by far the film’s best performance — Miles is the only believable human being around.
In short, Robert delivers some old-fashioned righteousness to a city that seems to have outgrown it. He’s the Platonic ideal of a Denzel Washington character: A bad-ass who possesses a biblical swagger, a sage who isn’t afraid to bully you into becoming a better person. He’s judge, jury, and executioner — he’s everybody’s keeper. Some people need to be straightened out with a bullet, others just need a copy of “Between the World and Me.” Robert is happy to help them both. Every sin he encounters only makes him stronger; every challenge he meets only makes him cooler.
Robert is pretty much Gotham’s reckoning, and he’s far past the point of no return. He never questions his choices, and Richard Wenk’s scattershot screenplay never asks him to. He’s just about self-actualized, and profoundly boring as a result. The movie doesn’t even pick up on the moments when its protagonist oversteps, when his indignation grows so loud that he becomes deaf to how dumb he sounds. “You don’t know what death is!” Robert screams at Miles, even though the first thing we learn about Miles is that his brother was just gunned down in the streets. Wenk wants us to think of Robert as an avenging angel with demons in his (secret) closet, but he’s just an imperious blue-collar superhero, and there’s precious little pleasure in watching this guy put the world to rights.
It doesn’t help that the antagonists are a bland and spectacularly obvious lot of killers who do nothing to challenge Robert’s concept of justice. Minor spoiler alert for a first act twist that’s revealed in the trailer: When Robert’s CIA contact (a shockingly low-key Melissa Leo) is murdered, the bad guys set about cleaning up any and all loose ends. It’s the most basic motivation they could have, and yet the film waits far too long to reveal what every single person in the audience has assumed from the start: Dave York, Robert’s old CIA partner, is pure evil. For one thing, he’s literally the only plausible suspect (a glorified “what the hell is he even doing in this movie?” cameo from Bill Pullman isn’t enough to throw us off the scent). For another, “Game of Thrones” alum Pedro Pascal smothers the role in smarminess — it feels like Fuqua’s only major performance note was “Be more like Jason Bateman.”
If “The Equalizer 2” picks up steam after everyone lays their cards out on the table, that’s only because the first half of the movie is such a disjointed mess of random do-gooding; even the best moments of “The Equalizer 2” remind you why this premise worked better as a television series. Fuqua, who seems faintly aware of that, tries to compensate with some wild action setpieces down the home stretch, and some of these attempts are successful (even if none of them are character-driven). There’s a solid bit where Washington fends off an attacker from behind the wheel of his car, and another clever sequence in which Miles makes use of Robert’s panic room — a clever sequence that’s almost undone by one colossal act of stupidity.
The big finale, set in an abandoned coastal town during the middle of a hurricane, whips up the energy of a post-apocalyptic Western (why not “The Book of Eli 2″?). But Fuqua doesn’t take full advantage of the setting, instead offering us a choppy and disorienting climax that’s high on CG storm clouds and low on surprises. “The Equalizer 2” might know what death is, but it doesn’t know how to deal with it in an interesting way. Worst of all, it leaves the door open for “The Equalizer 3.”
“The Equalizer 2” opens in theaters on Friday, July 20.