The Denzel Washington & Antoine Fuqua Tag Team Abides
It was right around the time of the great “Die Hard In The White House” wars that I realized I actually love Antoine Fuqua. I so vastly preferred his Olympus Has Fallen (a tasteless, hard-R hit that cost a fraction of the budget of competitor White House Down) that I had to do a little soul searching to determine why I was ready to die on this, the petty-ist of hills. The gleeful, over-the-top violence of Olympus was a huge factor for this action movie junkie. But the exploitative elements also won out over the squeaky cleanness of its competitor. And Fuqua was able to deliver the Gerry Butler-starring goods at such a steal, he managed to be both wildly irresponsible in the content of the film, but also fiscally responsible enough to deliver a sequel-spawning hit that outperformed White House Down both in entertainment value and at the box office. Many will (and have) vociferously disagreed with me on this entire line of thought, but I lay it out here to establish why I so thoroughly enjoyed The Equalizer 2.
The first sequel of Denzel Washington’s vast and impressive career, The Equalizer 2 solidifies this as his Death Wish franchise. Much like the Death Wish series, the Equalizer films glorify righteous bloodshed (something I adore in my cinema and repudiate in real life). And much like Bronson’s Paul Kearsey, we’re expected to believe and accept that Denzel’s Robert McCall is an otherwise well-adjusted and magnanimous individual who, upon recognizing injustice, also loves to murder all guilty parties and watch the life slowly drain out of their eyes while he peers directly into their souls. I suppose all of this mirrors the first film and more importantly pays homage to the original tv series. It’s remarkable that I’ve never seen a single episode of this program as its prime streak in the mid-1980s would also have been the point at which I was probably watching the most tv of my entire life. This one just slipped past me. But apparently show and films alike depict McCall as a retired special operative wielding the hammer of justice on behalf of the innocent and vulnerable. This makes for great tv as there can be a new adventure with totally new characters every time. And in the age of cinematic universes and pre-existing properties, this now also makes for great franchise filmmaking. And let me tell you, I’d gladly follow Fuqua and Washington right on into a third equalization.
This time around, McCall befriends a frankly humorous amount of people. The first film sees him coming to the rescue of a teen girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) caught up with some bad guys. This one sees him mentoring a young African American artist right on the cusp of either committing to his art or falling in with a street gang (Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders), helping his middle eastern neighbor with her urban garden, and also intervening in various troubles he learns about whilst driving everyday citizens around in his capacity as a Lyft driver. Home Depot in the first film, Lyft here. The Lyft component is actually great fun as it allows the movie to pace itself in an almost languid manner. We know there is going to be a “big bad” and a main plot in Equalizer 2 because there just has to be. But for honestly close to half of the film’s runtime, McCall is just living his life and driving his car. He’s visiting with a Holocaust survivor who was separated from his family. He’s winking at the little girl he secretly rescued from Turkey and who is now safe and sound back in his favorite local bookstore. He’s picking up a battered young girl from a fancy high rise apartment building and beating down the tech bros who abused her (in the film’s most deliciously self-righteous scene). We’re treated to a relatively low-stakes and episodic series of the adventures of our friendly neighborhood Equalizer, and I loved it.
Many will check their watches, wondering when the main plot will kick in (especially since the trailers spoil all of that), but as McCall is essentially a superhero, I enjoyed these hyper local adventures in the way we used to enjoy seeing Superman stop bank robbers. I believe all but one of these adventures have absolutely no connection whatsoever to the ultimate revenge plot line which involves two of his former intelligence agent friends Melissa Leo and Pedro Pascal. It’s a very literal episodic adaptation of the show and it allows for some incredibly satisfying moments of righteousness for the downtrodden that tastes especially delicious in these fraught times.
Ultimately, the trouble with Equalizer 2 is that it’s very short on surprises. In that main plot line which I won’t even bother getting into for fear of spoiling what very little potential for surprise there might be here, you never quite fear that McCall will lose, or even really be hurt by the villains. This is his game, and everyone else are just pieces in play on the board. There’s also no question that McCall’s dalliances in good citizenry are cheesy, glossy, movie versions of our everyday struggles as normal people in a broken world.
If you ask me, however, those potential shortcomings of The Equalizer 2 are a big part of what make it so satisfying and fun. I like my avenging angels to be virtually invulnerable. I want to see McCall dispatch bad people in painful ways. I’m down for mentoring troubled teens and rescuing them from gangs by simply pointing guns at the gang bangers and then handing said teen a book by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Robert McCall is no mere mortal, and he possesses incompatible skill sets that none of us can successfully wield ourselves. He’s always compassionate and willing to sacrifice all for those treated unjustly. But he’s also a righteous judge, jury, and executioner, taking lives with impunity because “they were all bad”. (The wife and kids of one of McCall’s victims here might beg to differ, but don’t worry, we’ll never see those characters again). The Equalizer 2 creates a fantasy world in which issues are black and white, and one man can control the destiny of those around him by sheer force of will. It’s a staple in Antoine Fuqua and Denzel Washington’s collaborations, and it’s fanciful filmmaking that I find more enjoyable in an escapist sense than many of the actual superhero stories we are inundated with today.
And I’m Out.