Having never seen the original action / drama TV series from the mid-to-late 80’s, I had no idea what to expect when I first checked out 2014’s feature film-adaptation, by director Antoine Fuqua (‘Training Day), and starring another of those middle-aged bad-asses, Denzel Washington (‘Crimson Tide’). It may have been the lack of expectation and reference that led me to enjoy that one as much as I did. Fuqua has a solid track record with action flicks, having cut his teeth on 1998’s fun-but-dumb, Hong Kong-inspired shoot-em-up, ‘The Replacement Killers’. He went on to direct titles like ‘Bait’ (2000), ‘Training Day’ (2001), ‘Tears of the Sun’ (2003), ‘Shooter’ (2007) and ‘Olympus Has Fallen’ (2013)…so clearly the man can do action. I also put Fuqua in the same sort of category as directors like Michael Bay, Simon West and Joe Carnahan; film-makers who, to me, definitely seem like they took some instruction or influence from the Brothers Scott – Ridley and Tony. More notably Tony. These guys share a certain visual presentation and ‘flavour’ with those two cinematic siblings and being that I LOVE the vast majority of both Scott Bro’s filmographies, any flick where I can clearly see their influence is usually A-OK with me. Right from the get-go, I could feel the style.
‘The Equalizer 2’ picks up a couple years after the violent and bloody events of the first flick. It seems that former spy ‘Robert McCall’ (Denzel Washington), when he’s not moonlighting as a Lyft driver, acts as an off-the-books operative, when he’s not also helping people in need around town. We’re reintroduced to ‘McCall’ on a train chugging through the mountains of Turkey, as he infiltrates and thwarts, with deadly precision, a kidnap situation. He runs into his old friend ‘Susan’ (Melissa Leo), soon after, just before she heads for the city of Brussels with her partner ‘Dave’ (Pedro Pascal) on a covert operation. While there, she’s attacked and, despite putting up a good fight, is murdered. After word of this gets back to ‘McCall’…the hunt is on…and the conspiracy unravels.
This is the first sequel that both Antoine Fuqua and Denzel Washington have ever done…and it’s pretty good! As I alluded to earlier, I was reminded several times of the films of the late, great Tony Scott, with the use of tele-photo ‘long’ shots, documentary-style (slick) grittiness, and quick edits. Hell, even the music score heavily reminded me of several Scott films, especially one of my favorites, ‘Enemy of the State’ (1998). So visually, this one hooked me early on. I also appreciated that it was gritty, with a touch of a mean streak. While not as action-oriented as the first one, Number 2 still comes with a decent body-count, and some gnarly kills (harpoon through the face, yo!). I also really liked where the story physically ended up. Through out the near-two hour run-time, there’s talk in the background about upcoming hurricane activity on the coast. As the story plays out, the 3rd Act ends up in a deserted fishing town as it’s buffeted by the powerful storm, while ‘McCall’ is forced to fight for his life in a tense ‘cat n mouse’ game with a vicious group of ex-soldiers…whom he served with back in the day. It was nothing super original, but it was pulled off well enough to keep my attention throughout.
Something else that kept my attention was the acting. For what could’ve been an easy throw- away action programmer, there was some effort put into the performances. Never mind that the cast was automatically solid, with accomplished actors like Washington, Pascal and Leo, among others (Pullman!), but there was a natural feel to the performances and line deliveries. In among the expected espionage / action / tough-guy dialogue, was a nice sprinkling of natural-sounding banter, which further helped get me invested in the story. The script gained further points when it chose to give ‘McCall’ friends and admirers. He’s written and played as a decent guy who’d done some shady shit in his past, but is working to better himself and those around him he can help, and others see it and appreciate it. As with the first one, there’s also a side story in which ‘McCall’ is trying to help some wayward youth toward better choices, in this case, a potential gang-banger named ‘Miles’ (Ashton Sanders). I don’t recall having ever seen Sanders in anything else, but I was impressed with his performance. He nailed the ‘ghetto playa’ aspect of the character perfectly, but also managed to balance it out with a barely hidden vulnerability. His rapport with Washington was effective and helped lend to the emotional stakes the flick sets up.
If I have to harp on a Negative, I would have to say that the story could’ve used another 15 or so minutes. SOMETHING felt missing from the plot. We reach the 3rd Act sooner than expected, or at least that’s how it felt to me. It felt like the conspiracy plot that kicks off the action was left a little simpler than it had potential for, or maybe there was a key element that was unwisely removed for pacing or run-time purposes. I’m all for a simple story, but this one felt like it sprinted to the finish when it should’ve trotted. Mostly, the pacing is consistent, though the first half does have it’s share of draggy moments, but it just felt too quick and convenient in how everyone ended up where they did.
All in all, that’s two-for-two, for the ‘Equalizer’ franchise and I’d be interested to see what they do with a third entry. Make it a solid trilogy and then walk away. Leave it self-contained and satisfying…like I hope they do with the John Wick trio. This is a good character for Denzel Washington and it’s fun entertainment for adults who like their action movies to have a little ‘teeth’. In this day and age of prickly and intrusive political correctness, once in a while, a nice throwback to the hard ‘R’ flicks of the 80’s and 90’s is most welcome…and this is most certainly one of those. The performances are solid, the action is quick and violent, there are some slick action set-pieces and the final setting was creatively handled. On a wee bit of a downer note, the story feels a little slow to get going, in the first half, but then hits the gas on the second, feeling like some key plot point or story-line was left in the dust. If you’re a fan of Denzel, of the first ‘Equalizer’, or of violent action movies in the mold of the 1980’s / 90’s, then this is a movie for you! Aside from the setting of the climax, there isn’t a big burning NEED to see ‘The Equalizer 2’ on The Big Screen, but if you do catch it streaming or on disk…it’s definitely worth a look.
* I like to look at these two ‘Equalizer’ flicks from a ‘what if’ stand-point, as in ‘what if ‘McCall’ was actually Denzel’s ‘Man on Fire’ character ‘Creasy’, had he not become a booze-addicted vengeance machine bent on his own destruction in service of revenge’. Like ‘The Equalizer’ is what his life became if he took the blue pill…not the red.