Vengeance is personal for Denzel Washington’s deadly ex-CIA operative. The rare sequel that improves on its predecessor.
What elevates this sequel are stakes. We last left McCall unleashing hell on a gaggle of Russian mobsters and no-name corrupt cops, forgotten the instant they fell like flies, for a teenage prostitute who barely qualified as an acquaintance. It was an entertaining enough excuse for a bag of popcorn, but it didn’t have claws. This time, McCall turns avenging angel for more personal reasons.
“The Equalizer 2” is also a little more liberal with backstory. Not so much as to spoil the mystique – McCall is still every bit the taciturn, tea-swilling, wandering ronin with an impenetrable moral code – but enough to inject a bone-crunching action movie with some much-needed heart.
McCall is still mourning the death of his wife and reading books in her memory (his book shelf gets an update; gone is “The Old Man and the Sea,” in is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me”). And he’s a Lyft driver now, which puts him in daily contact with a carousel of humanity that offers plenty of fodder to go vigilante when he senses a passenger in distress.
His old CIA handler and only friend, Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo), approves of his extralegal vigilantism, but beseeches him to reenter the fold. The CIA could use him, especially now. Off in Brussels, their high-level contacts are turning up dead under suspicious circumstances. When she goes to investigate, she too meets an unhappy end.
McCall is gutted by the loss and, of course, spurred to action, killing his way through layers of henchman until he reaches the center of the mystery – and finds a surprise.
It’s still all – and I say this affectionately – kind of dumb. “The Equalizer” films are superhero movies with a name to match, minus the capes and leotards. While most of the action is visceral and galvanizing (a knife fight in a moving car is particularly choice), McCall still takes out a train car of bad guys with a pot of tea. That the film has the self-awareness to realize and make knowing nods to its own gleeful preposterousness is what makes a character like McCall work. And then there’s Washington, who has the gravitas and magnetism to sell any character, even one as underwritten as McCall was in the first “Equalizer.”
He’s given an assist by frequent collaborator Fuqua, who allows Washington’s force of personality to dominate the screen while keeping his stylistic gimmickry in check. Fuqua’s most pronounced and often worst impulses as a director – fussy style elements, hyper-kinetic editing a restlessness with the camera – are largely reigned in and laser focused for greater impact.
This time, the camera stays still long enough to capture feeling. Betrayal, loss, grief, redemption – it’s the stuff great characters are built on. And it makes all those thrilling knife fights and broken bones actually mean something.
‘The Equalizer 2,’ 4 stars
Director: Antoine Fuqua.
Cast: Denzel Washington, Pedro Pascal, Melissa Leo.
Rating: R for brutal violence throughout, language, and some drug content.