‘The Equalizer 2’ Gives Us The Denzel Washington The World Needs Right Now
We still haven't hit Peak Denzel, and maybe we never will.
The “Residential Superhero” isn’t a new idea. But none have nailed it quite like The Equalizer and its 2018 sequel.
With slick action sequences in a gritty urban setting, unexpected dark humour and Denzel at peak Denzel — don’t be so quick to write these movies off as something only middle-aged Dads can enjoy.
The Equalizer 2 is the first sequel of Washington’s illustrious career, and for good reason. The original was damn good. And in a year where pretty much everything else is a dumpster fire, it’s nice to be able to sit back and enjoy a shameless action movie from people who know what the fuck they’re doing with it.
Taking a once-popular television series and rebooting it for modern audiences with a movie isn’t exactly unheard of. But with the current Mission Impossible franchise being one of the few notable exceptions, it so very rarely works. Remember Dukes Of Hazard, Get Smart, The Man From U.N.C.L.E? Yeah, we’ve bleached them from our brains, too.
The Equalizer TV series ran for five years in the eighties, with revered British actor Edward Woodward (The Wicker Man, that guy in Hot Fuzz that hates jugglers) as retired intelligence agent Robert McCall, who used his skills to help those around him. Outside of being a semi-enjoyable procedural and one of the first roles for The West Wing‘s Bradley Whitford, it didn’t give us a whole lot to remember it by 30-years later. It is very stale, and very white. Like an old crusty bread roll. Ironically, that’s the exact reason why it was perfect for a reworking.
To summarise screenwriter and pop culture critic Marc Bernardin on his Fatman On Batman podcast, Denzel Washington and director Antoine Fuqua’s take is less Batman, and more black man. He’s a suburban vigilante who doesn’t necessarily want to get dragged back into the action, but he can’t help see people around him who would benefit from his assistance if he just equalised the playing field.
It’s something touched on in the first movie, and leaned into a lot harder in the second. Washington exchanges services with a young, black artist in his building on the condition that he read Between The World And Me by intellectual Ta-Nehisi Coates (the book actually makes a few cameo appearances throughout the film, including one in Turkey). It’s about more than erasing obstacles for Washington’s McCall: personal growth in a young man of colour is just as important to him as wiping out a penthouse full of corporate dudebros who assault a female co-worker.
It should be noted that in both movies there’s an issue with women needing to be hurt to drive the story forward (Chloe Grace Moretz initially, then Melissa Leo for the sequel).
There’s a term frequently used on The Ringer’s series The Rewatchables called “Apex Mountain,” where guests assess whether the film being discussed is the apex of a particular actor’s career. For instance, Jason Bourne would be Matt Damon’s Apex Mountain, whereas Pretty Woman would be Julia Roberts’.
Denzel ‘D’ Washington is a rare Hollywood beast. At the age of 63, it still feels like the two-time Oscar winner is continually climbing towards his apex.
But how can you identify that peak? There has to be a trough, of course. And for Washington, there’s yet to be one. The Equalizer 2 is an excellent example of that, with the second outing not only building on the momentum of the first but also the depth of the central character Robert McCall.
“There are two types of pain,” Denzel tells an unfortunate at one point in the film. “The kind that hurts, and the kind that alters.” You believe him, not just because you’ve watched him kill villains while checking his split time on a stopwatch, but because it’s Denzel. Few people can command the type of authority, fear, knee-trembling power and audience goodwill that he can.
“Who the fuck are you?” a character asks. “I’m your father, your mother just didn’t tell you,” he quips in response, delivering one-liners as deftly as he does monologues.
Perhaps Dogma filmmaker Kevin Smith described it best when talking about The Equalizer: “It’s a movie that makes you smile from beginning to end with how vicious a killer Denzel Washington can be.” Yes, he delivers a performance with thinly veiled malice and tension just bubbling under the surface, but there’s also compassion shining through via the people he chooses to help.
2014 was tits-to-the-glass when it came to super stylish action movies. Among flashier fare like John Wick and Kingsman: The Secret Service, The Equalizer did just fine — grossing more than $190M at the box-office all up. But over the years, a feverish audience for the film grew, as it hit streaming services and home entertainment. It’s dark, gritty and testosterone heavy, sure. But unlike most Zack Snyder movies, it also managed to find a way to introduce levity.
“Denzel ‘D’ Washington is a rare Hollywood beast. At the age of 63, it still feels like the two-time Oscar winner is continually climbing towards his apex.”
The first film features a final showdown in Home Depot that’s so lengthy, it almost takes up the last third of the movie. It’s also so good that you don’t give a damn. After all, what’s more fun than watching Denzel Washington pick off bad guys in Bunnings using everything from fertilizer to a nail gun? It’s a delightful set piece and utilises so many of Fuqua’s strengths as a filmmaker: scope, choreography, humour, and brutality. How do you top that? By having the sequel’s final fight in a freaking hurricane, that’s how.
Those are the big moments, the flashier ones, but the long and dramatic dialogue scenes are pieced together with smaller action set pieces that are just as satisfying. Whether that’s taking out a room of Russian bad guys or only one in the backseat of his car, using a combination of defensive driving and martial arts, everything looks seamless.
The Equalizer 2 is the fourth time Fuqua and Washington have worked together – the first being the Oscar-winning Training Day, followed by The Equalizer and The Magnificent Seven – and it’s nice to feel like you’re in good hands with these two, who clearly know how to get the best out of each other.
Maria Lewis is a journalist, screenwriter and author of It Came From The Deep and the Who’s Afraid? novel series, available worldwide.