VERDICT: The third film in Denzel Washington and Antoine Fuqua’s ultraviolent thriller series is the best one yet. (If only that meant more than it does.)
By William Bibbiani
And so we return to the world of The Equalizer, a franchise whose title fittingly means “That Which Makes Things Average.”
There are now three films in Antoine Fuqua’s cinematic update of the popular 1980s vigilante TV series, and after a mediocre first installment and a subpar sequel, The Equalizer 3 is here to even things out. It’s a slick and acceptable thriller with exciting cinematography and a plot you’ll probably only remember because it reminds you of Shane.
Denzel Washington returns as Robert McCall, a former DIA agent who helps people in trouble, usually from rich and violent a-holes. At the start of The Equalizer 3, McCall is in Sicily, murdering mobsters at a palatial villa in search of a mysterious something or other, when his plans are derailed after — like The Ringo Kid in Blazing Saddles — he lets a kid live, and the kid shoots him in the back.
McCall is saved by a small-town police officer, Gio (Eugenio Mastrandrea, From Scratch), and a kindly doctor named Enzo (Remo Girone, Ford vs. Ferrari). Now he’s convalescing in Altamonte, which conveniently for cinematographer Robert Richardson (Air) is one of the prettiest places in the world, and inconveniently for a man with a back injury and a cane, seems to be made entirely of staircases.
But all is not well in Altamonte: The mafia is doing that thing the mafia does in movies, beating up local business owners in exchange for protection money, and with his injury, even McCall can’t do anything about it. Asking Robert McCall to walk past goons harassing innocent people and not kill them is like asking Jason Voorhees to ignore teenagers who are smoking pot, drinking beer, and having pre-marital sex right in front of him. It just feels weird, dang it.
Sure enough, eventually, McCall will be (Mc)called back into action, and sure enough pretty much every criminal in Sicily is about to get murdered. Antoine Fuqua seems to love watching Denzel Washington kill people in alarmingly violent ways, like shoving a gun through their eyes and shooting someone behind them with it. This seems to be compensating for the fact that, for most of The Equalizer 3, it’s just a character piece about a man who decides he likes Sicily and might want to move there. So when the action pops off, it really has to pop.
Indeed The Equalizer 3 is a surprisingly quiet movie when the blood isn’t spurting and Marcelo Zarvos’s pulsing anxiety attack of a score isn’t kicking in. Although the actual plot is forgettable movie thriller junk drawer stuff, about the Italian mob working with Syrian terrorists to sell drugs or buy real estate or blow up train stations or all three, it’s not very important, and it doesn’t really lead anywhere. The film is about Robert McCall trying, as he often does, to live a quiet life before being forced back into vigilante action. And then of course the fallout.
The main plot is so inconsequential that it’s genuinely hard to justify why Dakota Fanning is in The Equalizer 3 at all. She plays Emma Collins, a U.S. government agent that McCall (Mc)calls with an anonymous tip about the mafia/terrorist thing, and her subplot goes effectively nowhere since McCall does all the real work. At least we get a few scenes between the two former Man on Fire co-stars, where Washington really lays on the charm and looks like he’s genuinely having fun with the material. Fanning shines next to Washington but her other scenes only demand from her generic procedural nonsense, and she looks like she’s not terribly invested in it.
The Equalizer movies have a formula, for better and worse, and this new film sticks mostly to it. The exception is the film’s finale which, unlike The Equalizer 2’s absurd hurricane shoot-out, doesn’t feel the need to escalate the action. It just escalates Robert McCall. Instead of a giant set piece, we get a short horror story where McCall is the angel of death, meting out violently karmic justice to those who arguably deserve it. It’s impressively restrained for a movie where Denzel Washington also harpoons a guy’s head to the back of a van.
It’s a little strange that in Denzel Washington’s entire career, there’s only one movie he ever made a sequel to, and he did two of them, and it’s The Equalizer. We never had any follow-ups to Devil in a Blue Dress even though Walter Mosely wrote fourteen Easy Rawlins novels, but we got three Equalizers. Maybe Washington is having much more fun with these movies than we are. Or maybe he’s just nostalgic since “The Equalizer” briefly aired in the same time slot as his own 1980s television series, “St. Elsewhere.” (If that’s the case, look out, “China Beach,” you’re next!)
But if The Equalizer movies had to get made, and if they had to end here (which it looks like they might), then at least they went out on a good one. The Equalizer 3 is a remarkably stylish entry in the series, elevating a barebones story with Washington’s gravitas and Richardson’s uncanny cinematography. All things being equalized, it’s a relatively satisfying thriller.