Life is made up of good teams up whose combination always create excitement within us. They can be as simple as peanut butter and jelly, as conventional as milk and cookies, or as optimistic as President Trump and a jail cell. Hollywood too is full of cinematic team-ups, and The Equalizer 2 is the product of one such reunion. Antoine Fuqua and Denzel Washington work together on a sequel to their 2014 stylish vigilante flick and accomplish what few sequels never come close to achieving: being better than the original.
The original was sleek, stylish and hyper-violent. What it lacked in story and character development it made up for in literary analogies and fast-paced fight sequences. 2014 also housed John Wick, which delivered on the same fronts as The Equalizer, but who, unlike The Equalizer, created a depth to their enigmatic character by delivering just enough breadcrumbs of information about their past that we become emotionally invested in their journey. Even though the Equalizer film franchise is based on an 80’s television series of the same name, there is little to no resemblance between the two aside from the title and the character names.
Richard Wenk, the writer of both Equalizers, has a filmography full of middling action films that value action sequences over character development. Films like The Mechanic, The Expendables 2 and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back are examples of the style-over-substance writing that can be seen in the first Equalizer, but is greatly improved for the follow-up. Wenk takes a page from John Wick, which inherently had a vapidity to them that needs to be softened by likable lead characters. In The Equalizer 2, we are given greater context into Robert McCall’s (Denzel Washington) past and how it has shaped the man he currently is. We understand him more as a character when we can see the close personal relationships from his past, allowing him to display some emotional vulnerability even when he proves to be physically invulnerable.
Like John Wick and his dog, Wenk continues McCall’s story by having him lose his only stabilizing force, his oldest friend Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo). This is the catalyst that sends him on a journey to a past he’s been avoiding confronting his entire life. This is also one of the few ways the film makes McCall an empathetic character that we can emotionally invest in instead of just blandly rooting for. McCall continues his work from the first film, helping the people in his life with their unsolvable problems, all while being a Lyft driver. Lyft’s product placement throughout the film verges on the eye-roll-worthy but is used as comic relief enough times to make the over-appearance of the logo largely forgivable.
Fuqua raises the stakes in the film by making the violence more brutal and visceral, all while keeping a brisk pace throughout. Gratuitous violence for the sake of violence makes the average viewer want to look away. Fuqua knows this, and that is why he makes sure that it is only used in situations that require justice or retribution. There are so many injustices in the world and like any person, Fuqua knows we’ve experienced it in some way or another, but have been powerless to do anything. He uses that in order to turn the brutality of the punishments into cathartic experiences for the viewer. The vengeance our main character doles out rarely seems equivalent to the crime, but in the moment we couldn’t care less. Just seeing the types of people in our lives that usually escape true justice, finally receiving a reprisal, is enough for root for Washington’s character all the way through.
Washington and Fuqua have worked together several times and it’s obvious they have developed a shorthand. It’s a true collaboration, where each artist implicitly understands the other. Fuqua knows how to play to Washington’s strengths by letting him become the character while also giving him room to inject several Denzel-isms, like his natural affability. Likewise, Washington succeeds in every performance because of how effortless his roles appear, but we know that the nuances of combining parts of yourself with a completely different character is anything but easy.
One of the greatest ways their partnership shines is when it comes to the action sequences and Fuqua shows us that 63-year-old Denzel Washington is still a viable action star. The pacing of the film may be brisk, and the action scenes energizing, but a close look at the fight choreography shows that it concise and calculating. There aren’t any crazy acrobatics or John Wick-style gun-fu because Washington’s character is much steadier and more calculating than that. That doesn’t mean that the fight sequences aren’t exciting, but quite the opposite. The precision to the strikes feels refreshing from the haphazard bullet-spraying action films we are used to. Precision and nuance are what turn The Equalizer 2 into the film that the first should have always been to begin with. The story is still full of plotholes and absurdities, but the catharsis the film provides may be just what the doctor ordered.