Denzel Washington playing a Lyft driver? No one could have predicted that casting choice. But in The Equalizer 2 – the first sequel ever in the 63-year-old star’s career – the actor gets behind the wheel and picks up customers in the Boston area. God help you if you piss him off. Washington’s character, Robert McCall is still a retired special-ops agent hellbent on equalizing the criminal scum he encounters on his watch. His cover last time was a job at Home Depot, but the Lyft gig gives him access to the worst of people. Edward Woodward, who starred in the 1980s series on which The Equalizer is based, never got to lay on rough, R-rated justice like Denzel does. You’re probably thinking, isn’t the two-time Oscar winner punching below his weight in a vigilante movie? Yes. But nothing dims his star power.
With the return of director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), the sequel to the original 2014 thriller gives Washington a trusted collaborator. And with no need to lay the groundwork for the character like the first time, the sequel is faster on its feet than before. Yes, Richard Wenk’s threadbare script still insists on showing us McCall dispatch a few baddies just to give us a taste of his MO. There an opening scene on a train in Turkey in which the hero makes mincemeat of baby traffickers who’ve stolen a infant from her American mother. Bet on this fixer, who lives to help the helpless, to equalize the bastards.
Just don’t expect anything original. Remember last time when McCall pulverized the Russian pimp population to save a teen hooker named Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz)? Now he switches focus to Miles (Moonlight‘s excellent Ashton Sanders), an African-American art student who’s letting his ambition slide to hang with junkies and gangbangers. McCall, the ultimate father figure, is not going to let that happen. He gets distracted by a visit from his former Agency handler Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo), who still cares about him.
Then something happens to her in Paris that gets McCall’s blood up. For info, he reconnects with intelligence buddy Dave York (Pedro Pascal) who thinks our man has been dead all these years. Not bloody likely. This all leads to a ultra-violent shootout with the bad guys (and a kidnapped Miles) during a raging storm near the beach house McCall one shared with his wife. Cue the expertly choreographed bloodbath. Fuqua spares no gore. It’s just the moral issues that go begging.
Yet the question persists: Why would a quality actor like Washington (who just gave a titanic performance on Broadway in Eugene O’Neill’s classic The Iceman Cometh) waste his time with B-movie bang-bang? You could theorize that this son of a Pentecostal preacher identifies with these Equalizer stories about young people in danger of falling through the cracks of society. He has publicly stated he was once in that position himself and got help. Whatever his reasons, the star brings a humanity and a resonant dramatic force to the role of McCall that the movie he’s in can’t hope to match. The Equalizer 2 feels uneven and off balance. But not Washington. Despite his trashy trappings, there’s no one cooler to watch in action.