Kevin: When it was released in 2014, Denzel Washington’s “The Equalizer” was a welcome throwback to the days before nearly every major studio action movie was a family friendly, PG-13 comic book/fantasy/sci-fi property. An adaptation of the ‘80s TV show, the film starred Denzel as Robert McCall, a former government operative who uses his talent at equalizing shit to help ordinary people in need. In one instance this entailed working with a coworker to lose weight before a physical, while in every other instance it entailed murdering anyone who looked at him sideways in very clever and gory ways. In fact, the Home Depot-set climax shows how Kevin McCallister from “Home Alone” would have turned out had he become a government-sanctioned serial killer, with McCall setting a number of deadly traps using everything from barb wire to nail guns to cordless drills.
By the time it was over it had become one of my favorite action films of the last several years, so I jumped at the chance to check out an advanced screening last night. Of course I felt the same way about 2012’s excellent “Jack Reacher,” which unfortunately spawned a deflatingly mediocre sequel a few years later. Would “The Equalizer 2” follow the same trajectory, or would returning director Antoine Fuqua maintain his alternately macho and philosophical vision?
Having exhausted all the murderous possibilities that Home Depot has to offer, the sequel picks up with McCall now working as a driver for Lyft, which allows him to make some money on the side and the flexibility to undertake covert missions, such as the opening rescue of an American girl who’s been kidnapped by her Turkish father. Weirdly McCall is still in Boston even though he revealed his secret government past to a number of people by the end of the last one, although considering what he can do with just a couple of corkscrews, he’s probably not too worried they are gonna talk.
Speaking of his special skills, McCall is a supporter of equal opportunity when it comes to bringing the pain in this one, as at various points he gives a beatdown to Turkish criminals, stock broker bros, black gang bangers, and highly trained mercenaries. If the first “Equalizer” seemed like a movie that could have starred Steven Seagal yet somehow managed to snag Denzel Washington, the sequel doubles down on that by having McCall demonstrate a very Seagal-esque penchant for breaking people’s arms and, in one instance, gouging out an eye.
So the good news is that if you are a fan of the first “Equalizer,” the sequel doesn’t water down or diverge from what made the original so fun and unique in the way that “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” unfortunately did. While it’s not as memorably gruesome (except for one unfortunate merc who gets to see what his intestines look like), there is probably more action here than in the first, while Denzel gets plenty of fist-pumping finishing moves against opponents who realize too late they shouldn’t have underestimated him.
Meanwhile if you are a fan of the actor then you’ll be happy to hear that we get peak Denzel in this. I can see why this is the first sequel in his long and storied career, because he gets the opportunity to demonstrate all of his best-loved sides, including the stern but caring father figure Denzel, the smiling and boisterous Denzel, and the intimidating badass Denzel.
Of course if you hated the earnest and self-serious tone of the first “Equalizer” then you should definitely skip this one, as fellow Squad member CJ (who, it should be noted, loves watching CGI robots fight each other) did when I offered him a ticket. CJ almost walked out of “The Equalizer” in the theater because he was so bored hearing McCall give another soliloquy about the role of a man in this world or taking time away from destroying the Russian mafia to help some fat guy become a security guard. If you felt the same way then you are really going to hate the extended subplot where McCall helps turn a troubled youth away from joining a gang through the power of graffiti removal, the published works of Ta-Nehisi Coates, and lectures about self reliance delivered at gun point.
Actually there are so many TV-style mini-stories within “The Equalizer 2” that it takes a while for the main plot to come into focus, and even longer for the film’s villain to be revealed. But every time you start getting antsy listening to another self-help bromide, we get a scene where Denzel has to drive his car while fighting off a knife-wielding Lyft passenger in the backseat. If nothing else, “The Equalizer 2” is the rare well-made, serious, unapologetically R-rated action film, starring one of our last true movie stars, in the heart of the summer movie season.
And if that’s not enough for you, it’s also probably the only movie you will ever see in which the hero is a Lyft driver who tells a bad guy “I expect a five-star rating” before breaking his fingers. That may not be worth a five-star movie review, but it’s at least worth three in my book.