The age range for superhero eligibility in Hollywood is quite wide and forgiving, particularly for men, but it seems Denzel Washington missed the cut. There are few other explanations for his and director Antoine Fuqua’s rehabbing of The Equalizer, a mostly forgotten piece ’80s prime-time pulp, with Washington in the title role. The first film garnered many a comparison to the late career of Liam Neeson, but Robert McCall is more of a superhero than the men-of-a-certain-age-in-impossible-situations in which Neeson has found his calling. The voluntary nature of McCall’s sundry vigilante missions is their defining aspect. At the end of the first Equalizer, McCall is seen putting out an open call on Craigslist for anyone who might need rescuing, like a slightly bored, coming-out-of-retirement Spider-Man.
But, like the Spider-Man movies, that should be the theoretical fun of The Equalizer, and now its sequel (somehow not titled The Sequelizer.) The large majority of superhero movies have long since leapt into stakes no smaller than the destruction of the universe, and it’s refreshing to see someone who just wants to take down local crooks and unsavory types. With this premise fully established by the end of the first film, The Equalizer 2 spends — and I did check my watch — about 40 minutes just following McCall as he slaps around bad guys and reunites adorable children with their weeping parents before it digs into its central plot. His new gig as a Lyft driver gives him ample opportunity to witness crimes and bring perps to justice, and this elongated prologue feels a little like a promo reel for a procedural drama — which makes sense given the film’s provenance. But after a guns-blazing opening fight sequence wherein McCall takes a break from reading Ta-Nehisi Coates to beat up some kidnappers on a Turkish train, the film starts to feel like it’s more invested in selling the idea of the series rather than a film in and of itself.
The plot, once we get around to it, centers on the murder of one of McCall’s best allies from his former life as a full-time agent, and the web of global conspiracy that inevitably follows. It’s clear once it gets going why the film has put it off for so long — there’s absolutely nothing memorable to take away from it that can’t be found in every other revenge movie of its ilk. The visible sweat on this is a curious, repeated “fwp-fwp-fwp” laid into the audio track, seemingly meant to emphasize beats of action we would otherwise gloss over.
McCall, tireless do-gooder that he is, is once again fighting for the soul of a wayward young person — this time a neighbor boy and would-be gangbanger played by Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders. It’s a hokey plot elevated by Sanders, who has the same “who is that” screen energy he did in Barry Jenkins’s film, harnessed for quite different means here. Sanders is a necessary presence in a film that early on decides to go full superhero — he’s recognizably, awkwardly, painfully human, even if we’ve seen story lines like his a hundred times before.
Meanwhile, Robert McCall can flip a gun into the would-be shooter’s face (his trademark skill, which he does early and often); he has a MacGyver-like resourcefulness and knack for booby-trapping that should be plenty of fuel for a film’s worth of Wile E. Coyote payoffs. But maybe that’s why it’s hard to track The Equalizer 2 as a film with a plot: With the secret behind his formidable skills out of the bag, all we have is a good guy who is good at things, and a sense of obligation to conjure up a convoluted syndicate of straw men for him to chop down. You can feel how much the film just wants to be about a Lyft driver who beats up rapists, and frankly, maybe that first instinct was best.