A decade on, director Antoine Fuqua and star Denzel Washington reunite for a second revenge tale

The Equalizer 2

The Equalizer 2

Dir: Antoine Fuqua. US. 2018. 121mins.

The balance is off in The Equalizer 2, an action-thriller that wants to be a taut revenge tale, an over-the-top spectacle, a rumination on regret, a sombre character study and a paean to those on the margins of society. For a spell, this sequel to the 2014 hit intrigues because of its insistence on taking time to establish melancholy themes and thoughtful tone. But no amount of Denzel Washington’s weary authority is enough to distract from the fact that this overstuffed, ultimately unsatisfying potboiler merely dresses up its clichés in strained gravitas.

The reliably commanding swagger of Denzel Washington helps to smooth over The Equalizer 2’s uneven or overblown patches. 

Opening July 20 in the States and August 17 in the UK, this Sony release hopes to match or better the commercial success of The Equalizer ($192m worldwide), one of Washington’s biggest hits. Remarkably, the film represents the first time the Oscar-winning actor has starred in a sequel, and certainly his box-office clout (aided by audience awareness of the original film) should result in solid grosses.

Washington again plays Robert McCall, a former government operative who now works as a private vigilante for those seeking justice. McCall is lying low as a Lyft driver in Boston when Susan (Melissa Leo), someone from his old life, is slain. He suspects this wasn’t a random crime but, rather, a targeted murder — and he’s determined to find the perpetrators.

Reuniting with Equalizer director Antoine Fuqua and screenwriter Richard Wenk, Washington easily slips back into McCall’s steely persona, dispensing the random bad guys with swift, brutal precision. As in the first film, The Equalizer 2 features a few instances in which we see action sequences through McCall’s eyes before they occur — he’s such an elite killing machine that he can anticipate his adversaries’ moves in advance, always staying a few steps ahead. But whereas the visual gimmick was clever in the 2014 movie, here it’s less inspired, quickly becoming formulaic.

Before The Equalizer 2 shifts gears to become a more conventionally violent action movie, the filmmakers try to put us inside the head of their stoic, mournful hero, who is silently grieving for a dead wife. With the exception of his occasional vigilante antics, McCall is mostly living a withdrawn life, although that doesn’t prevent him from reaching out to those in his community who need support — including a lonely older man (Orson Bean) and an aspiring artist (Ashton Sanders) tempted by peer pressure to dabble in crime. With Susan as his last close friend, McCall is a man constantly trying to help others who doesn’t seem to know how to save himself.

Washington’s considerable dramatic presence ennobles McCall’s crudely-drawn inner demons, and The Equalizer 2’s stubborn insistence to let its story slowly develop suggests the potential for a rich character piece about second chances and letting go of the past. But any hope for a more grownup summer action film is soon swept aside by obvious plotting, simplistic moralising and some generic suspense sequences.

What’s especially frustrating is the film’s half-hearted attempt to address how the impoverished face limited prospects, which leads to unappealing life choices. Sanders’ Miles is a Hollywood cliché of the “promising black youth torn between gangs and a bright future” character, and the young actor’s raw sensitivity isn’t enough to fight against the patronising treatment. Especially considering that Sanders played one of the versions of Chiron from Moonlight — an infinitely more nuanced, insightful and compassionate view of African-American life — The Equalizer 2’s clunky attempt at a social conscience is all the more disappointing, even hollow.

The film’s multiple ambitions eventually get steamrolled into a familiar final third act involving unsurprising double-crosses and risibly epic action scenes. The Equalizer 2 doesn’t have particularly memorable villains, and what’s meant to be emotional about the conclusion doesn’t carry much weight since it hasn’t been resonantly established beforehand.

Throughout, the reliably commanding swagger of Denzel Washington helps to smooth over The Equalizer 2’s uneven or overblown patches. He capably sells McCall’s thirst for revenge, but the bigger that the movie gets, the more it seems to dwarf this powerfully charismatic star. All things being equal, Washington is classier and more committed than the lacklustre vehicle he inhabits. 

Production companies: Columbia Pictures, Escape Artists, Zhiv, Mace Neufeld Productions

Worldwide distribution: Sony Pictures

Producers: Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, Denzel Washington, Antoine Fuqua, Alex Siskin, Steve Tisch, Mace Neufeld, Tony Eldridge, Michael Sloan

Screenplay: Richard Wenk, based on the television series created by Michael Sloan and Richard Lindheim

Production design: Naomi Shohan

Editing: Conrad Buff

Cinematography: Oliver Wood

Music: Harry Gregson-Williams

Main cast: Denzel Washington, Pedro Pascal, Ashton Sanders, Orson Bean, Bill Pullman, Melissa Leo