When it comes to writing the review for a sequel, it would almost be better to draw a path analysis diagram containing a couple of simple questions. With The Equalizer 2, all you need to be asked is, did you enjoy the first film? If no, this isn’t for you. If yes, are you looking for more of the same, with more time spent devoted to Robert McCall helping random citizens, but less satisfying central plot? Then read on…
If the first film suffered slightly from spending its duration building up McCall as the Equalizer we all know and love (if you’re old enough to remember the original TV series that is), only to end before we’d had much of chance to see him at work, then the sequel immediately addresses the issue and throws us head first into the action.
What’s great about The Equalizer 2 opening sequence is how efficiently it gets the audience back up to speed with how powerful the character is – the threat takes place on a train heading to Turkey, reminding us that McCall’s reach is global, then his obsessive precision (with stopwatch timing still in place) assuredly takes out a few goons with brutal ease, before he delivers a moral choice to the main kidnapper that encompasses his unique take on justice: “There are two types of pain, one that hurts you and the other that changes you.”
While we might not see which type of pain was chosen, we do get to see the result of McCall’s efforts when a mother is re-united with her young daughter afterwards and it’s the moments of ‘equalizing’ where the film really shines. There’s something incredibly cathartic about watching Denzel Washington right wrongs, whether as an avenging angel (there’s a scene early on that involves an abused intern and the yuppie perpetrators, that perfectly mixes beautifully choreographed vengeance with black comedy), or just listening to the pleas of a Holocaust survivor trying to get an old painting back, when most people won’t.
In fact if The Equalizer 2 was purely centred on the plights of the helpless, it would have made for a much stronger film, as it’s the main plot that doesn’t quite deliver. The core of it revolves around a CIA murder investigation, led by McCall’s only real friend Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo, reprising her role) which very quickly goes sideways in all manner of predictable ways. I went in to the sequel completely cold, having avoided plot details and trailers, but was able to tell how things were going to play out with such precision that it couldn’t help but disappoint.
The shadow of Jason Bourne’s legacy is partly to blame, especially The Bourne Supremacy, as the idea of CIA conspiracies, threats and betrayals were all executed with such finesse and variety, that other films treading similar ground will always struggle to find a new spin on the material and risk suffering by proxy, which is the case with this second Equalizer instalment.
If you’ve seen the first film, you’ll know that the finale (which sees McCall take a leaf out of Jason Voorhees’ book) was an explosion of over the top violence that arguably served as the most memorable moment, but curiously for his first sequel, director Antoine Fuqua deliberately chose to avoid surpassing it, taking a different tack. The reasoning makes sense and the climatic storm makes for an arresting audio/visual spectacle, but it’s simply not as satisfying and since McCall is so consistently ahead of the curve and borderline invincible, the sense of threat is low and that makes the denouement feel drawn out.
Be warned though, if Fuqua’s trademark bone crunching brutality proved a step too far in his previous work, especially Olympus Has Fallen, then you’re probably best to steer clear, as there’s still plenty of maiming and bloody deaths splattered across the runtime. In the director’s defence though, his work probably feels more impactful during a summer filled with bloodless shark attacks and PG-13 rated blockbusters, providing a rare and refreshingly adult alternative on the big screen, especially one that’s a hark back to the seventies and eighties both thematically and in terms of the violence that used to be de rigueur.
If the first Equalizer felt overlong, its sequel definitely picks up the pacing, but there’s still room for a few additional edits that could have really served an action thriller in this mould – there’s less brooding this time around, though one reflective moment is spoilt by some rather overt and unnecessary product placement. It’s been ten years since Bryan Mills utilized his special set of skills to exact a mission of vengeance in Taken, but it set a benchmark for the genre and wisely remembered that a ninety minute runtime is all that’s needed to tell that kind of story, with a sequel having even less of an excuse when characters are already established.
Thankfully for The Equalizer 2 though, the side plots mentioned above aren’t just relegated to the first act, running concurrently to the main one and they’re consistently engaging, especially as they allow Denzel Washington a chance to embellish the character with his usual charm and it’s his performance that effortlessly carries the movie. He’s always mesmerizing and acts with such power and presence, that he could make a weekly shop enthralling, so when we witness McCall schooling a youth on cooking etiquette, it gives the film some much needed levity and it feels like a pure addition of Washington’s, imbuing the scene with a life lesson that feels like a personal adlib.
The Equalizer 2 is a thoroughly enjoyable, if slightly imbalanced sequel, punctuated by some superb action, with enough heart and humour to make the journey satisfying for fans of the first film, but is unlikely to draw in any new ones.
The Equalizer 2 is in UK cinemas from Friday.