Even Denzel Washington Can’t Bring Life to The Equalizer 2

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Denzel Washington is back, in The Equalizer 2, as the quiet, bookish, lethal Robert McCall, an ex-C.I.A. agent who lacks the bristling mysteriousness of Keanu Reeves’s John Wick or the go-get-’em doggedness of Liam Neeson’s Bryan Mills, hero of the Taken franchise. When he’s not taking someone down, McCall is reading a book: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, perhaps, or the $40 hardbound special edition of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time he just had special-ordered. Or else he’s working his job as a Lyft driver, discreetly listening in on phone conversations and arguments, his life a composite of other people’s lives.

When the time comes—when a financier plops a drunken intern with a torn blouse into McCall’s Lyft and pays him a suspiciously generous extra tip, say—McCall perks up. Equalizer 2’s director, Antoine Fuqua—who also directed its 2014 predecessor, as well as a 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven, which also starred Washington—zeroes in the actor’s eyes, then flits around the room at the evidence of criminal misdoing, suggesting that McCall’s mind is at work. It evokes a primal instinct, to say nothing of high-level military training. It makes you wonder who this guy is.

Washington—indisputably one of our greatest living movie stars and a guy who could get me to watch most anything, sometimes to my detriment—absolutely has a keen sense of his character. It’s there in every skeptical cock of his head, every sly, knowing grimace. But The Equalizer 2 is too much of a dull slog for any of that to pop with Washington’s usual ace charisma. The movie is a bog; Washington’s merely wading through it.

The first Equalizer wasn’t great, either; it was a movie practically designed to be caught on TBS during a slow weekend, with time to grab more beer between commercial breaks—meaning that it didn’t need to be good, necessarily, to be satisfying. The new movie, meanwhile, lays it all on a bit thick. It gets going when an old friend from the C.I.A., Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo), gets involved in a dangerous criminal investigation into the murder of one of her agents. That’s the opening thread—it’d be unfair to reveal more—but the movie opens outward into scandal involving double-double-crosses and McCall’s mercenary past. The movie hops from his current home base outside of Boston to Belgium—the site of the agent’s murder—and back down to Virginia, where McCall’s got old friends and, most importantly, an old life. He’s got a house on the Chesapeake Bay that he used to live in with his wife, but, well, you know how it goes for these hero types: he’s running from that past.

He’s a likable, if unabashedly archetypical, crime-movie hero. All the ingredients are there: loss, regret, and more than one man’s share of instructive life experiences. McCall’s wife is dead and he’s got no kids, nor, apparently, any other relatives—only past colleagues from the C.I.A. and military, the people he’s given to calling “family,” and the strangers he saves. Those strangers include a talented young artist named Miles (a very good Ashton Sanders, best known for playing teenage Chiron in Moonlight), who lives in the same apartment building and is at risk of falling into a life of crime. McCall takes Miles under his wing, for no other reason than that he seems to believe in him.

McCall is the kind of guy who jumps at a chance to impart wisdom—it’s the daddy-est thing about this movie, and also, probably, the most effective. He takes every chance he can to teach crooks a lesson. Literally: before he beats you up, he takes you to school. “There are two kinds of pain in this world,” he says to a Turkish kidnapper: “pain that hurts, and pain that alters. Today, you get to choose.” Another time, he asks a suit-and-tie type which hand he writes with before breaking his other hand—then demands a 5-star Lyft rating. He loves to present bad guys an illusion of choice before wreaking havoc on their well-being, to the point that it’s surprising no one ever yells “Just kill me already!”

That, at least, would’ve shown that the movie—direly camp, in its own way—has a sense of humor about itself. No such luck. The film isn’t all bad—a back-seat murder attempt by one of McCall’s passengers accounts for one particularly juicy scene—but it’s ultimately a bore. By the time it ended, after a stormy showdown on Chesapeake Bay that shamelessly descends into ineffective chaos, I had stopped being curious about who this McCall fellow really is. And so had the movie.

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