Film Review: The Equalizer 2

Sludgy sequel has prowling paladin Denzel Washington dispensing yet more justice in a singularly violent manner.
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It’s tempting to read The Equalizer 2 as a new-millennium riff on Taxi Driver. Sure, modern-day Boston is hardly the mean streets of 1970s New York and the star is behind the wheel of a Lyft instead of a yellow cab. But the titular protagonists share a certain yen for solitude and for cleaning the muck off the streets. That is where the similarities end. However, thinking of other connections at least helps kill time while watching The Equalizer 2, a movie that makes its star Denzel Washington’s 2004 bludgeoning revenge fantasy Man on Fire seem subtle by comparison.

When Antoine Fuqua’s sequel begins, Robert McCall (Washington) is far from his blue-collar Boston life. We find him in a Muslim cap and beard on a train through Turkey, reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and keeping a watchful eye on a man traveling with a young girl. A few clipped lines of dialogue (“American?” McCall is asked; “Guilty,” he responds) and some swiftly crippled henchmen later, the girl is safely back on American soil and McCall is back to his day job.

Of course, a roaming hero like McCall never really has a day off. As in the 2014 original, he’s the kind of action hero who picks up strays. This time out, McCall’s good deeds involve befriending a Holocaust survivor (Orson Bean) pained by the memories of his lost and presumed-dead sister and mentoring an at-risk youth (Ashton Sanders, giving some grit to a thinly written role) in his apartment building. Every now and again, McCall does some freelance justice, like wiping the floor with a hotel roomful of finance-industry bros after they assaulted an intern and dumped her in his car. But in the main, McCall seems content to read his books and mourn over his dead wife.

Over the course of a two-hour movie that occasionally feels far longer, McCall is pulled back yet again to his previous life as an assassin for Uncle Sam. Richard Wenk’s screenplay takes a long and circuitous route to this turn of events, starting with a double-assassination in Brussels and the labored buildup to the murder of one of McCall’s few remaining friends. While that story trudges along, it leaves the audience free to ponder things like: How come McCall can afford to do so much traveling on a Lyft driver’s salary? Also, was McCall made a Lyft driver just so he could have a catchphrase? (It’s “Make sure I get a five-star rating,” by the way.)

It’s strange that The Equalizer 2 is such a sluggish ride. Fuqua and Washington have developed a body of work over the years that is, if nothing else, reliably kinetic. But with Wenk’s pedestrian writing, there just isn’t much for Washington to work with here. As a star, he needs foils to go up against and tear down. But in a story filled with mediocre villains, the movie and Washington almost seem bored. Excepting the scene where McCall calmly tells several assassins in broad daylight on a suburban street that he’s going to enjoy killing each of them—complete with the wicked Denzel grin and even finger-guns—there just isn’t much of that playful spark that Fuqua is usually able to coax out of his star.

In the end, The Equalizer 2 is best thought of as an advertisement for Lyft instead of Uber. Call the latter—who knows what you’re going to get? Call the former and you just might get a bookish ninja who likes Proust and doesn’t mind snapping the fingers of people who have done you wrong.