An unexpected but terrific character piece punctuated with thrilling action beats.
Sequels, particularly to action movies, typically go the bigger route. That’s not inherently a bad thing, and while you sometimes get Speed 2: Cruise Control you also sometimes get Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Denzel Washington‘s never done a sequel before now, and it’s probably not surprising that his first dip into these waters goes a very atypical route instead. The Equalizer 2 is an alternately relaxed and satisfying follow-up that values the calm as much as it does the storm.
Robert McCall (Washington) has officially left his CIA career behind and embraced a more simple life. He spends his days reading, driving passengers for Lyft, and interacting with neighbors. Once in a while, though, he revisits skills acquired from a lifetime ago in order to help those in need. A mother trying to find her missing daughter, a teenager tempted by the drug trade, a young woman abused by privileged young men. A visit with an old friend (Melissa Leo) goes well, but it’s soon followed by the news that she’s been murdered overseas. Distraught but determined, McCall applies his particular set of skills to the pursuit of her killers.
Director Antoine Fuqua returns as well for this follow-up to their 2014 hit, and as the first sequel for both of them it shows why they’ve probably been so reluctant in the past. Rather than go bigger with the film or even simply rehashing the exact same beats, they’ve done something far more refreshing. Along with returning writer Richard Wenk, they’ve crafted a film that eases its way into things slowly and assuredly. It holds off the intrusion of plot for far longer than most studio films, especially of the action variety, would dare to do, and the result is a casually captivating experience.
Our visit into McCall’s life unfolds slowly as we watch his routine play out, and Washington makes the most of the quiet time. He’s always been a fascinating actor, and he delivers more with an expression than most action stars manage with a dozen quips. I’d happily watch a series about his Lyft adventures as he reacts silently — and sometimes not so silently — to the joy, indifference, or distress of his passengers. (Call it Ex-CIA Agents in Cars Getting Revenge and it’s a guaranteed hit.) It’s an oddly beguiling watch, and that’s due as much to Washington as it is to its atypical presence in an action film. This is a man who’s left his past life behind but still holds on to his skills and the memory of his deceased wife. He’s happy just reading a book, but these remnants of the past fuel his drive towards making the most of retirement as well.
Once the plot does kick in it’s with the unfortunate baggage of a pair of genre contrivances. They don’t necessarily hurt the film — they’re expected at this point — but after the first hour’s change of pace they’re a letdown all the same. The first involves McCall’s friend Susan (Leo) who returns here only to be killed and therefore trigger the male hero’s journey of revenge. It’s not quite “fridging” as she’s not a love interest, but it feels every bit as lazy. The second is for you to experience yourself, but at least it’s somewhat obfuscated by a visually thrilling third act set-piece unfolding against a raging hurricane.
The action beats themselves are fairly solid affairs, and while a stand-in detracts briefly at one point Fuqua shows once again a sharp eye for kinetic and suspenseful thrills. Fight scenes are fast and ruthless in their efficiency — this is no stylistic experience with exquisitely choreographed clashes destined for “Best Fight” lists — and are instead true to McCall’s character and abilities. He finishes things quickly and smartly, but the exchanges are no less entertaining for their brevity. Cinematographer Oliver Wood shot the Bourne trilogy and has worked with Washington previously on Safe House (2012) and 2 Guns (2013), and he captures the action clearly and cleanly more often than not.
The film stands apart for a few reasons — it’s Washington’s first sequel, its first half is surprisingly meandering for an action film, and it’s a rarity as a serious action sequel with a black lead. Go ahead, try to think of a non-comedic action franchise with a black lead hero. I’ll give you the first two Lethal Weapon films (and Blade if we’re including comic adaptations), but otherwise you have to go back to the 70s and blaxploitation movies to find one. It’s a long overdue return.
The Equalizer 2 feels through its first half like a character piece about one man’s struggle with retirement and loneliness, and it’s a beautiful thing. There are still bursts of violent action throughout, but the focus is the man. Its back half is a bit more traditional, but taken as a whole this is a terrific film balancing character and action equally. See it twice so Washington and Fuqua return for a second sequel sooner rather than later.