This is a film that is both very good and very bad. Good bits are the photography, the acting, the special affects and the violent deaths. Oh, and a fine gale force storm in the last fifteen minutes. The bad bits are the unctuous moralising, the plodding plot and … the violent deaths.
Holding it all together with his insouciant screen presence is officially approved assassin, Robert McCall, (Denzel Washington) and his regular colleague in action thrillers, director Antoine Fuqua. Washington and Fuqua have collaborated before on the first Equaliser, and on Brooklyn’s Finest, the remake of The Magnificent Seven and Training Day, probably their finest work so far.
The writers recycling the first film but not with any imagination, are Richard Wenk and Michael Sloan. They could do with some night classes in screen writing. It isn’t that they can’t write dialogue. To Washington’s credit he manages to make his lines sound like western philosophy, but then that’s an actor’s job. The writers give us faux wisdom and iffy logic, and sloppy factual errors.
The first Equaliser was set in a B&Q style superstore giving Washington a wide choice of inventive ways workshop tools can kill a hoodlum, and lots of shopping aisles to hide behind, under or on top. For this outing Washington is forced to use conventional guns and machine guns. As before. he never gets wounded even by machine guns spray. He emerges from every melee unruffled.
The story beings with a pre-title type of sequence not linked to anything, there to tell us our hero is an action man who can kill at will. For some unknown reason McCall is dressed as an Imam reading a book on a train travelling to Istanbul.
Book reading is McCall’s signature conceit, that and setting his wrist stopwatch seconds before he dispatches a dozen villains. In the first film his addiction to books worked fine, it was understated, it gave him the appearance of conscience, a thinking man but McCall is a sanctioned CIA Black Operations killer. Here his book reading has no real purpose other than a gimmick.
He is watching a half-asleep little girl in carriage seat opposite. Next minute he’s drinking with four dodgy Eastern European guys in the restaurant car. Then mayhem breaks out and we discover the little girl has been kidnapped. McCall is there to get her back to her mother in Boston, USA, McCall’s home town. He’s not been commissioned to do it. He’s doing it out of the goodness of his heart. He’s dedicated his life to the oppressed and the victimised. He works alone. What a hero, and all while reading a book.
Back in the states he indulges in two more of his trade mark Really Nasty Samaritan deeds leaving more dead bodies behind him. By this point McCall earns his quiet living as a driver for Lyft taxi cabs, the back seat a good place to meet stressed out folk, and the occasional deeply guilty looking Eastern European assassin. Finally, a third into the movie, a gaggle of gratuitous killings behind him, he segues into the plot proper.
This time a bunch of – you’ve guessed it – Eastern Europeans decide to wipe out McCall’s own CIA boss, Susan Plummer, (Melissa Leo) and her partner, McCall’s former partner, Dave York, (Pedro Pascal). This time, the equalizing is personal.
How did the baddies know where she lived? That’s what McCall has to figure out. And he does it by spotting who did, and who did not, press the elevator button. What a guy. From then on we are back to a series of revenge killings or justified punishment, whatever is your preferred acceptance of a secret state policeman who dishes out summary justice. None of his executions have a political or philosophical premise. They rely on us accepting McCall is keeping our cities clean of Eastern Europeans filth. Makes you wonder what books he’s reading, Mein Kampf?
Still based (very loosely) on the 1980s TV series, this never respectable sequel finds retired CIA operative McCall enjoying his vocation as a freelance vigilante and corrector of injustices. That leaves a bad taste in your mouth. What’s wrong with apprehending the bad guys and handing them over to the cops?
This is standard-issue crime-drama stuff. How Fuqua gets off with all this tosh is by giving it the veneer and gravity of a much more important movie. He paces each sequence well, letting us see McCall in his natural habitat while gradually introducing the story. He character builds, and that includes the secondary characters. They are given a bit of life for us to see.
The tactic is risky in a formula action movie where the audience is liable to get impatient with repetition, but Fuqua’s direction and Washington’s magnetic performance manage to convince us that Robert McCall, not the plot, is our only concern.
Like James Bond, his skills are so pronounced we know he will survive anything, and walk home to his local bookshop with hardly a scratch on his forehead. Nevertheless, there’s no getting away from it, this is butt-kicking made for immature grown-ups.
When my mind wandered, not from boredom but from knowing what would come next, I noticed a lot of flubs – directorial errors. Here are a few. The street-level establishing shot of what is claimed to be Brussels is actually Prague, Czech Republic. (You get lots of financial incentives to shoot in Prague and crew are cheap.) There is a Czech store front and the Polish consulate in the Czech Republic in full view.
Another odd error is Interpol is depicted as a murder-scene investigative agency, even allowing the CIA to cooperate and visit the crime scene. Interpol is an international authority that facilitates co-operation among countries, with no law enforcement duties or powers.
In a Brussels scene there’s a police officer wearing the uniform of a French ‘Gendarme. Costume mistress, you’re fired! And after McCall confronts a group of smarmy American investment bankers as a change from Eastern Europeans he asks for their cell phones and cameras but doesn’t take any. Mystifying.
So, all-in-all, pretty run of the mill stuff given tremendous weight by the presence of the great Denzel Washington, but hells bells, he’s slumming these days.
- Star Rating: Three stars
- Cast: Denzel Washington, Dave York, Melissa Leo, Ashton Sanders
- Director: Antoine Fuqua
- Writer: Richard Wenk, Michael Sloan
- Cinematographer: Oliver Wood
- Composer: Harry Gregson Williams
- Duration: 2 hours
- RATING CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?