There are times when two movies will come out close to one another and serve as a salient example of something you already knew to be true. There are actors and there are movie stars. There are actors who can be movie stars, but not all movie stars are actors.
Take last week’s “Die Hard”-inspired debacle “Skyscraper,” starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. It was a terrible movie, hampered by downright horrible acting from a lead who is very charismatic but has the emotional depth of a two-dimensional thimble. “Equalizer 2” doesn’t have that problem because Denzel Washington is an actor and a movie star who has made a career of saving mediocre movies.
Denzel Washington might be the best actor working today. Every film he appears in usually ends up interesting in spite of so many factors working against it. I think the second film in the “Equalizer” series could have been decent with another lead actor, but with Denzel it ends up being better. He plays Robert McCall, the kind of hardened, world-weary loner that perfectly suits his intensity. In the past, Robert had been a blunt instrument for the CIA. Some personal tragedy helped change his perspective, and now he’s using his skills to help make things right for people who have been wronged.
Robert spends his days as a Lyft driver, transporting people around New York City, learning their stories and at times finding ways to help them. Sometimes it’s doing research for an old man who is trying to rediscover his past. Other times it involves beating the holy hell out of some date-rape prone Wall Street assholes.
Director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) does a nice job with a premise of a character going from a reluctant soldier for justice to a guy looking for more opportunities to help balance the scales. Structurally, the film meanders through the first act and sets up Robert’s world but does not advance the plot in a traditional sense. A lot of it feels episodic, like the segment of a good TV show.
Eventually, the plot gets rolling. One of Robert’s only friends from his old life is killed under mysterious circumstances, which forces him to dig through a cluttered past to discover who wanted her dead and why. The audience is treated to a number of scenes to lead us to a conclusion that anyone with an IQ higher than 80 will have already predicted. It might be the least surprising reveal since discovering Stellan Skarsgard was the killer in every movie he has ever appeared in! He’s always the killer. Even in movies where there is no killer, he is the killer. Even “Mama Mia! Here We Go Again.”
It should have been a very average experience. However, “Equalizer 2” exceeds expectations because of Denzel. There’s really no other way of saying it; he makes every scene watchable and manages to inject life into scenes that could easily devolve into cliché ridden nonsense. The motivation for his revenge arc is such a pointless, thinly written excuse to get him on a mad killing spree. Yet, it works because he has the raw intensity to bring heat to the scenario. It’s amazing how many gaps Denzel is capable of filling.
The movie is filled out with a lot of average talent and subplots. Maybe it’s because Denzel shines so brightly, everyone else seems dim in comparison. As a franchise, “Equalizer” has managed to deliver two perfectly perfunctory installments that haven’t felt like a complete waste of time.
I had a strange feeling as I watched the story unfold about a principled man willing to get his hands dirty to help make things right—to beat up abusers, sexual predators and unprincipled government rogues, whose only master is the almighty dollar. It was kind of refreshing to see a good guy beat the living shit out of the bad ones. Maybe it’s the acerbic state we’re currently forced to deal with everyday, but the idea of a good guy who cuts through the bullshit and powerslams the assholes of the world felt like a revenge fantasy I could support.