The villains in Antoine Fuqua’s The Equalizer series are often faceless—that is, until the camera registers their confusion and fear right before they’re snuffed out with dazzling proficiency by Robert McCall (Denzel Washington). In The Equalizer 2, there’s an instance when the former black-ops specialist almost appears to be making sushi of his opponent. The scene passes by in an imprudent flurry of knife slashes, as if Fuqua were daring us to laugh at the audaciousness of the film’s sadism. This is a hero’s journey disguised as a slasher flick, with the viewer tip-toeing alongside Robert’s victims through one booby trap after another. The Equalizer 2 is a fun night at the movies for those whose idea of fun is a wallow in a spectacle of broken fingers, gouged eyeballs, paralyzing neck snaps, near decapitations, and disembowelments. But such excess, especially in the name of morality, can be wearisome.
When he isn’t destroying the unrighteous, McCall works as a Lyft driver in urban Boston, his backseat a kind of jukebox of life, from a woman ecstatic about her college admission status, to a babbling alcoholic trying to keep himself away from bars, to a young man in uniform on the eve of his first deployment to Iraq. And not only does McCall fulfill his duties as a driver, but sometimes he acts on his passengers’ behalf, at one point effortlessly dispatching a half-dozen coke-snorting hedge fund douchebags for presumably molesting a battered and drugged young woman. The man reads his environment with the same thoroughness he applies to literature—he ingests everything from Marcel Proust to Ta-Nehisi Coates—and Washington reliably commands every scene, his stone face working in tandem with his graceful fingers to map and assess the spaces around him.
With no real sense of direction, The Equalizer 2 takes us through the merry-go-round of McCall’s life, from the goings-on in the backseat of his car to his mentor-like relationship to Miles (Ashton Sanders), a young man with a talent for painting. Indeed, it’s only after its first hour that the film blooms into something more than an unremarkable slice-of-life vigilante fantasy, when one of McCall’s old C.I.A. colleagues is murdered in Belgium. Returning to the world of international intrigue, McCall finds answers to his friend’s demise almost as effortlessly as he violently overwhelms foes in combat. He’s invulnerable, conveying no strains of frustration. Even in a subplot involving Miles and the lure of the Boston gangland, complicated matters are set right—with a few thwacks, of course—in a way that’s egregiously simplistic.
Fuqua and screenwriter Richard Wenk envision McCall as a hero in absolute concord with the world of his own fiction. This is expressed in one of The Equalizer 2’s most impressively designed sequences, as Miles, alone painting inside McCall’s apartment, is stalked by assassins who don’t realize that McCall isn’t home. McCall surveils his apartment remotely through hidden cameras connected to his phone, and guides Miles to the safety of a secret bunker inside a bookcase. The would-be attackers see only themselves in a mirror as Miles, petrified and gasping for breath, sees them from the other side. McCall, like Fuqua, sees just about everything from his remote viewfinder, miles away from the action and way ahead of the other players in this story.
But a fun set piece can’t make up for a lack of cohesiveness, as the film juggles too many B stories beneath the main storyline of the Belgian murder mystery. Set against Washington’s composure and startling invincibility (in the entire film, his opponents land at most two blows against him, neither of which seem to faze the man), everyone else comes off as comparably faceless, whether it’s the endearing people he helps or the nefarious antagonists he fights. Even Melissa Leo and Bill Pullman, returning from the first film as the married C.I.A. couple who occasionally help McCall, feel wasted. Order and righteousness being the product of one great man, The Equalizer 2 is symptomatic of a confused time when people are collectively looking for invulnerable superheroes who don’t so much as speak truth to injustice as beat the hell out of it, and its cathartic pleasures leave a bad taste.