In the very satisfying Equalizer 2, Denzel Washington comes out of the shadows to hand the Deep State an overdue reckoning.
If you think any movie that allows The Mighty Denzel Washington to kill off a bunch of bad guys can never go horribly wrong, let me introduce you to 2016’s The Magnificent Seven.
In-between their work on 2014’s terrific The Equalizer and this weekend’s equally satisfying Equalizer 2, Washington and director Antoine Fuqua teamed up for what should have been a no-brainer Western remake, and instead delivered an over-produced mess that ended up floundering around due to a lethal overdose of political correctness and identity politics (I kept waiting for a transsexual Eskimo to show up).
Thankfully, Equalizer 2 has none of these problems.
This welcome sequel to the 2014 box office hit pretty much picks up where you expect. Denzel’s Robert McCall has found his middle-aged calling. The former CIA operative, still grieving over the loss of his wife, is now using his lethal skills to help others, to be his own kind of Batman; a Boston-based vigilante-superhero for everyday folks who need a little extra-legal support in the form of a bone snap.
McCall doesn’t charge for his services; he does not even ask for thanks. His reward is being close enough to witness the results of his good deed, but far enough away to not be noticed.
Part of this is modesty, I suppose, but it is also his own need for emotional distance. The death of his wife, the mourning, even after all these years, it still consumes his emotional life, leaving room for little else. After all, he is still making his way through the list of 100 books she left for him to read, and anything that distracts from this connection, his last, probably feels like an act of emotional infidelity.
Then there is the fact McCall is dead, at least officially. Calling attention to himself can only bring trouble. So he works in the shadows, an avenging angel with a stopwatch and all the time in the world to kick your sorry ass.
Superman figured out the best way to help others was to disguise himself as Clark Kent: Reporter. After all, what better way to be in the middle of the action when someone needs help? McCall is a little different, a man primarily interested in bettering the lives of those around him — even if that means a trip to Istanbul. Superman is a global vigilante. McCall’s slogan could be: “Shop local. Eat local. Kill local.”
This means McCall lives in a working-class apartment complex, keeps his ear to the ground, and makes a living as a Lyft driver. This means God help anyone who McCall decides has it coming. This can include a mobbed-up ex-husband who kidnaps his ex-wife’s daughter, a frat pack of young businessmen who gang rape an intern, or the local gangbangers out to corrupt a young man McCall sees some promise in.
But that is just McCall’s nine-to-five grind, the usual-usual faces that need some slashing… If Equalizer 2 was based only on that, it would still be a pretty great movie, but a brutal death ups the stakes considerably, forcing McCall to come out of the shadows and take on America’s Deep State in the form of some very shady CIA/DOJ/FBI types.
The leader is a James Comey-esque snake, sure of his own virtue as he violates the law and abuses his power. There is also the John Brennan-type, the gorilla who does most of the driving. Finally, there is the Peter Strzok-type, the wild-eyed sociopath who just likes to watch the world burn.
Oh, yes, there is going to be a reckoning.
The best parts of EQ2, however, are the quiet moments. This is as much a character study as it is an action film, and when that character is played by two-time Oscar-winner Denzel Washington, one of our last true movie stars; an actor whose second-to-none power emanates from his stillness, his eyes, how he sets his jaw, and a smile nearly as reassuring as the presence of God, you are never squirming in your seat waiting for a car chase.
Writer Richard Wenk, who also wrote EQ1, perfectly utilizes Washington’s bottomless toolbox to create one memorable scene after another, including McCall’s life-changing confrontation with the kid he is hoping to mentor (after some bloodletting), his confrontation with the Deep State inside and outside a suburban home (where he promises to kill them all — twice, if possible), and his approach to his Lyft customers, which is often wordless.
One of the most satisfying subplots involves a nursing home resident and Holocaust survivor played by Orson Bean (the late Andrew Breitbart’s father-in-law who has contributed to Breitbart News). Their scenes together are brief, but make an impact due to the kind of chemistry and warmth veteran talents seem able to generate without any effort. And I dare you not to get dust in your eyes during the payoff. Bean turns 90 on Sunday, has been in show business for seven decades, and what a moment he delivers.
I’m thrilled EQ2 is already over-performing at the box office, well ahead of estimates, especially after the critics came out swinging against it. Denzel deserves a lucrative franchise (this is his first ever sequel in a 40-year career) and moviegoers deserve something at the movies that didn’t used to feel like a unicorn: the pleasure of watching a legitimate movie star, a living legend, forgo all that empty CGI in favor of a deeply satisfying slow burn.