Thomas Jefferson declared that all men are created equal, but the world is what it is, so Denzel Washington’s got to wander the Earth, equalizing. The character has a name, of course, with a couple of traits and a backstory, but watch The Equalizer 2 with an audience, experience its long lulls and bursts of violence with them, and it’s clear that we’re all just watching Denzel, just as in Arnold or Stallone movies we’re watching Arnold or Stallone. “You don’t fuck with my boy!” a guy sitting near me exclaimed when some dudes made the mistake most dudes make in The Equalizer movies, that of not recognizing that the quiet Denzel standing before them is the star of the movie.
Spoiler: The dudes soon regret fucking with him.
As the star, Denzel has the power, at any moment, to kill every motherfucker in any room. The suspense in the first half of this curiously glum film comes from wondering how he’ll exercise this power — which rooms, and which motherfuckers, will he spare? The filmmakers offer him a variety: The tie-wearing Boston finance bros who abuse a young woman? The Roxbury gang that’s goading his neighbor (Ashton Sanders) toward a life of crime? The Turks on a train hundreds of miles outside Istanbul who get beat down in the film’s goofy yet dead-serious prologue, a scene that finds Denzel, in a no-mustache beard and skullcap, undercover like Leslie Nielsen at the start of The Naked Gun?
Equalizing, according to the logic of the ‘80s TV series that inspired this film, and the men’s adventure paperbacks that inspired that TV series, means that Denzel solves through violence the problems of the everyday people he meets — the problems that nobody else can help with. He’s kind of like members of the local TV news investigative team, the ones who take on shady roofers, and just like them he tends to avoid going after the bastards within the system itself, like, say, the insurance company that shadily denies your claims. Even Denzel can only do so much!
The real Denzel, the skilled and beloved actor, also doesn’t do too much in The Equalizer 2. Often we’re stuck watching scenes of home invasions and hotel conferences — set in Belgium, a country Denzel never visits. The most suspenseful sequence, a real jewel of tension, occurs in the Equalizer’s apartment, when he’s not home; Denzel occasionally checks in via phone from his car many miles away. And, as in the first movie, Denzel’s not onscreen for much of the climax, which again is staged and shot as a slasher film with Denzel as the killer. The first Equalizer’s hardware-store climax was a vicious, audacious fantasy of the mundane being set to murder. It was like the horror film that has always lurked inside Home Alone.
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This time, director Antoine Fuqua has his villains, a special ops team, doing the hunters-become-the-prey routine in a seaside town abandoned for an incoming hurricane. His film takes structural inspiration from the gathering storm — a low roll of thunder will sound beneath the sleepy scenes of Denzel listening to a sweet old Lyft rider chatter on — and the final sequence is tense and atmospheric. Fuqua (Training Day, Southpaw, The Magnificent Seven) has always been adept at stirring a moody, anticipatory anxiety, at the anticipation of violence, but the buildup often proves more engaging onscreen than the actual onslaught. Cheers to the priceless moment here where Denzel tells the villains, on a suburban street in the mid-afternoon, that he’s going to kill them all. But everything gets less interesting once the storm hits. All that lashing wind and rain, and Fuqua’s sometimes haphazard storytelling, deny us the grim pleasures of Denzel’s methodical slayings, which often take clever advantage of whatever tools happen to be handy. It’s hard to appreciate the hero’s crafty planning when we can’t really make out what he’s crafted.
Still, the crowd at my screening cheered and gasped. And Fuqua and Co. clearly improve in some ways on their previous film. First off, this time Denzel’s Equalizer is chattier, more warm, more engaged with the world around him. He’s moved on from the hardware store job he held in the first film and now drives for Lyft. The film’s best moments find Denzel tooling around Boston, eyeing his passenger in the back seat, listening to their problems, sometimes wryly smiling at the human carnival. These scenes are straight-up trolling those of us who wish that, after Fences, Denzel the actor might bring to the screen Jitney and the rest of August Wilson’s Century Cycle. But that’s not Hollywood’s plan. There’s less money in brilliant-speech-giving than in motherfucker-killing. So eventually, inevitably, one of his Lyft customers tried to gut him with a knife. At the screening I attended, Denzel’s response — or that of the stunt double, stunt driver, camera crew, sound team and editors — brought the house down.
When not killing or administering beatdowns, Denzel putters around a Roxbury apartment complex, befriending the neighbors, reading great books, painting over graffiti, running a sort of low-key mentorship program. It’s fascinating to see the filmmakers try to squeeze in as much personally meaningful material as they can before the plot takes over completely. The Equalizer loans his copy of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me to a new friend, and teaches him, through some Tom Sawyer-esque trickery, the edifying value of painting outside.
Those scenes are low-key, unfussy, gently moving; Denzel the actor, for a few moments, takes over from Denzel the Movie Star. But a pall hangs over the scenes of gentle community outreach: The plots of movies like The Equalizer 2 depend upon all the people that the action hero cares about being put into danger. So why befriend the kid? Give him the book and then move on with your life, Mr. Equalizer! Or, better still, how about a movie where Denzel and the kid discuss that book, and nobody gets killed?