Good guy with gun takes on the bad guys

Film review: The Equalizer 2

The Equalizer 2. Directed Antoine Fuqua. Starring Denzel Washington. Rating: 4 (out of 10)

There have been several Denzel Washington films over the years that were worthy of sequels and the seasoned actor surely considered the merits of each one. That’s what makes his choice of the utterly disposable The Equalizer 2 such a mystery.

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The followup to the 2014 film, itself a take on the popular 1980s TV show, is stylishly yet senselessly violent, and frankly a little silly. Washington once again plays Robert McCall, a former CIA agent gone rogue and very much not healed from the death of his wife. He honours her by reading an assortment of her favourite books when he’s not carving up bad guys with knives and nail guns.

McCall has made it his mission to stomp out corruption and fight for justice without the hassle of all that police paperwork. In the first film he worked at a big-box hardware store and saved young Chloe Grace Moretz from Russian mobsters, instilling in her a love of reading in the process. This time, McCall schools young Miles (Ashton Sanders, Moonlight) on the finer points of gentlemanly behaviour: no cursing, keep the neighbourhood tidy, etc.

Having left Home Mart behind, McCall has taken a gig as a Lyft driver, which gives him an endless parade of customers with wrongs to right. (The original McCall advertised his vigilante services in the newspaper: so last decade!) He also gets the occasional sideline gig from his sole friend and former agency comrade Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo), which explains why a Lyft driver can afford to break up a kidnapping plot on a train bound for Instanbul.

Current news tie-ins include McCall exacting revenge from entitled corporate pricks who rape a woman (shades of the Occupy Wall Street and #metoo movements) and hunting down corrupt government bad guys (all things Trump). But there’s also an uncomfortable parallel to the everlasting gun debate, and to the well-worn argument that the only way to stop bad guys with guns are good guys with guns: it works great in the movies, but the real world rarely makes the distinction between virtue and evil so obvious.

We need to make things personal for McCall, and Susan’s fate is ridiculously prolonged and violent during a scene that contributes nothing to the already sparse plot. (Note: director Antoine Fuqua assigned Leo a similar violent beating in 2013’s Olympus Has Fallen.) We know what we’re in for with a film that champions eye-for-an-eye justice but Fuqua and screenwriter Richard Wenk dispense with any kind of credible backstory and motivation McCall in favour of one bloody mess after another. Because McCall has a habit of setting a timer while dispatching villains, the edits are fast and furious, the violence and spurting-blood seamlessly efficient.

It’s OK to revel in all that gore because these are bad guys, right? Films tapping into our darker nature are plentiful (the fourth in The Purge series currently in theatres is case in point) but there’s no getting around the exploitative nature of this film, even if McCall is the type of guy who reads high-brow literature and pals around with a victim of the Nazis.

Is it ridiculous that Washington, 63, is playing a character who takes on a roomful of guys less than half his age? Sure. (He’s not alone: Mr. Particular-Set-Of-Skills himself, Liam Neeson, is 66.) Is it unusual that even the best actors take on fluff roles in between passion projects? No. But that the Oscar-winning actor has wasted the goodwill of his audience on such soulless and hyper-violent dreck is a huge disappointment.

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