The first time Denzel Washington, in a career spanning decades, agrees to be in a sequel, it is for the sequel of a movie that was the reboot to a television series from the ’80s just obscure enough to be unheard of by anyone who didn’t actually live through its run. It’s an odd choice, to be frank. Yet, the series’s semi-obscurity and pop culture’s general indifference toward it has probably done The Equalizer and The Equalizer 2 a lot of favors. It has shielded both films from shouldering the Atlantean weight of expectations that would come with a more popular or well-known source material (see: Terminator, Lethal Weapon, Miami Vice, RoboCop, etc…). It probably carried most of the weight of the first film’s pre-production load (shopping the script around, attaching producers, directors, and actors, etc…) at a time when reboots and remakes are generally safe bets. But the only reason that The Equalizer wasn’t quickly forgotten and The Equalizer 2 was even made lies at the feet of Denzel Washington—an easy choice for one of the best working actors in the last 20 years. But let’s get to him later.
The Equalizer 2 picks up some time after the events of its predecessor. After a brief action scene in which the eponymous character kicks ass on a train halfway across the world, Robert McCall (Washington) is living a relatively quiet life as a Lyft driver in Boston. Of course, he does enact brutal justice when the occasion arises, but for the most part he lives quietly, instructing those around him through action and word. The sequel delves deeper into the backstory of McCall, bringing in old friends from his service days as well as much mention of his wife, a character on whose absence The Equalizer 2 focuses keenly. Little comes of the latter, but of the former the film weaves most of its central plot. Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo) is one such figure from McCall’s past who he has retained contact with. The two friends seemed to have worked out a mutually beneficial, off-the-books professional relationship. She uses her ties to the government to provide information, and he uses this information to right wrongs. When trouble emerges for her agency and herself, McCall is compelled to act. And act he does. Violence, chaos, and confusion follow in his wake.
While McCall is acting out his version of retributive and personal street justice, Washington is acting to hypnotize the audience with his signature and unparalleled magnetism. Without him, this movie would be another face in the flood of bad-to-mediocre remakes and reboots that is currently soaking Hollywood to the bone. Washington single-handedly saves this movie. Sure, there are bright spots in the film. The action is well-done and Ashton Sanders turns in a great performance as Miles, one of McCall’s neighbors. But replace Washington, even with a different great actor, and this movie drowns in the surrounding din. Washington’s unique and singular acting style—call it charisma, gravitas, presence, or talent—permeates this film just as it permeates every other film he stars in. Washington is matched or even surpassed in acting ability by many other people in the business, but he cannot be replaced or replicated by them.
It seems as well that Washington is enjoying himself in the role—flexing his acting chops. The role pales in comparison to those that made him synonymous with great acting (Training Day, Flight, Fences, Philadelphia), but it’s truly fun to watch him run circles around this movie. He is also joined in his work by a career colleague, director Antoine Fuqua. The two have worked together on multiple films like Training Day, The Magnificent Seven, and the first Equalizer. Fuqua’s presence might also contribute to Washington’s first role in a sequel.
The film itself is nothing to write home about—except in review form of course—but retains supremacy as the best film to be widely released this weekend for Denzel’s performance. In quality, Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade far exceeds it, but has so far only been released in major cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Boston. Still, the sequel is a solid mark in the series so far, and fans of the films will likely delight in another installment a few years hence.
Featured Image by Sony Pictures