"Equalizer" Sequel Gets Formula Right

The rising action in vigilante thriller “The Equalizer 2” culminates in a hail of bullets. No surprise, you say; 2014’s terribly pedestrian “The Equalizer” inevitably went the same way. But Antoine Fuqua’s sequel climaxes in no conventional shootout; it takes place on the Massachusetts coastline.

In the middle of a hurricane.

Yes, the final stand of vigilante Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) against a battery of bloodthirsty killers amidst a roaring cyclone is alone worth the price of admission. But the rest of the film is a marked improvement over its predecessor, packing in a handful of moments of legitimately spine-straightening suspense and, thank goodness, a sense of purpose for its lead.

There’s no supernatural-tinged villain-of-the-week here. Instead, Washington’s cold-blooded, big-hearted hatchet man must face down real-life demons that have wormed into his previously ghostlike existence. McCall now works as a Lyft driver, the pic’s only traces of overt corniness coming in the form of confessions from his passengers. When a longtime associate is brutally murdered in Belguim, McCall’s past life begins infecting his present, first in the form of a mysterious assassin who ends up in his backseat. A breathless vehicular fight scene ensues.

Soon this specter of violence wafts toward McCall’s modest apartment complex, putting not only his life in peril but also that of a talented, troubled teenage neighbor named Miles (Ashton Sanders). It’s textbook audience manipulation that works splendidly, screenwriter Richard Wenk correcting course from the eye-roll-worthy “killer does right by teenage prostitute” bent of the original.

Melissa Leo and Bill Pullman reprise their roles as Susan and Brian Plummer, intelligence agents friendly to McCall; Pedro Pascal comes aboard as Susan’s brooding partner. Along with Washington, they form a potent foursome of talent that’s an ideal counter to the willfully trashy material, successfully tied together by a director-star combo that dates back nearly two decades.

The high points of “Equalizer 2” recall Fuqua and Washington’s first team-up, the Oscar-winning directorial breakthrough “Training Day,” a movie full of filmmaking promise that’s gone mostly unrealized. Blending high drama with histrionics is a difficult thing, but Washington seems born to do it, and Fuqua once again seems perfectly aware of how to utilize his star – their intervening collaborations notwithstanding.

This time around the final product is moody and exciting in the way a Denzel Washington vigilante movie should be, building to the aforementioned finale that’s equal parts absurd and awesome.

Pointing out Washington’s ability to elevate mostly straightforward material is no faint praise. He did it most recently in the rock-solid “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” and he’s done it again here in a film that admittedly wouldn’t work without him. It’s no five-course meal, but it’s mighty fine comfort food – provided the check doesn’t arrive in the middle of a tropical storm.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: July 20, 2018
Studio: Columbia Pictures (Sony)
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Screenwriter: Richard Wenk
Starring: Denzel Washington, Pedro Pascal, Ashton Sanders, Bill Pullman, Melissa Leo
MPAA Rating: R (for brutal violence throughout, language, and some drug content)