'The Equalizer 2' Review: More Of That Same Denzel Washington Ultra-Violence

It's fairly cold comfort that The Equalizer 2 is an improvement on its 2014 predecessor. That film's director and star, Antoine Fuqua and Denzel Washington, have returned for this follow-up, which is largely more of the same. The first film was exceedingly dour, grim and gratuitously violent, with Washington's Robert McCall laying waste to all sorts of faceless baddies. This time around, while the reasons why McCall has to fend off bad guys hit closer to home, much of the story is predictable and Fuqua's unable to rein in the film to a more manageable length. All told, this manages to be a bit better simply by not being that excessive.

In this second film (if it had even a slight sense of humor, this would have been called The Sequelizer), McCall is still living in Boston but with a different purpose. After his stint working at a Home Depot-style hardware store became the location of a big shootout with bad guys, McCall now works as a Lyft driver. It's hard to imagine a man with such a dark past being content, but seeing McCall help random people — from a bookstore owner whose daughter was kidnapped by her delinquent father to a helpless young woman who was abused by a group of dudebro lawyers — suggests that he's as close to being at peace as possible. But not for long: when his old friend Susan (Melissa Leo) is murdered in Belgium, ostensibly by a random pair of robbers, McCall investigates and learns that her death was part of a larger conspiracy.

It would be difficult to pick just one problem with The Equalizer 2, but the most baffling is that writer Richard Wenk (also returning from the original) waits for what feels like an awfully long time to get past the set-up. Susan seems marked for death as soon as her first scene, in which she shares a quiet dinner with Robert, ends with her saying, "I'm the only friend you've got!" There might as well be a skull-and-crossbones symbol hovering over her head. And yet, Susan is part of the film for quite a bit longer, as Fuqua cross-cuts between her exploration into the deaths of a husband-and-wife duo who were Agency assets and McCall tooling around Boston, helping a WWII survivor (Orson Bean) and connecting with Miles, a young man in his apartment building (Ashton Sanders). Some of the early fight sequences, in which we're reminded how vicious a killer McCall can be, feel as if they were thrown in simply to have some action in the first half.

Once the setup is out of the way, the larger problem is that the reveal of who's behind Susan's death is not so surprising. (This is the second movie of the month that abides by Roger Ebert's old Law of Economy of Characters, which dictates that a seemingly unimportant character is very crucial to the plot. At least the other movie had the good sense to unmask the bad guy in the first half-hour.) There's enough in The Equalizer 2 that's mildly compelling, but much of it is on the periphery of the plot.

To wit: basically every scene where Washington and Sanders — best known for his work in Moonlight — share the screen is compelling in ways the rest of the film couldn't dare to be. This is less because of the story itself, in which McCall tries to steer young Miles away from joining a local gang, and more because of the intensity the two actors bring to the script. For all the violence in the film — the final act, set during a hurricane, has blood and gore aplenty — the most surprising scene is when McCall teaches a fierce lesson to Miles about taking a life. It's less because of the dialogue, which steers awfully close to an Afterschool Special, and more because it's the most present moment for Washington in the entire picture.

Denzel Washington is too charismatic an actor to make a character like Robert McCall a complete waste of screen time. (That said, his boisterous personality is once again in check here, as it was in the original, which is a real shame.) The section of The Equalizer 2 that gives itself over to Washington and Ashton Sanders, whose raw talent remains mostly untapped, suggests a movie that might be a little hackneyed but would still be fascinating to watch. The rest of The Equalizer 2 no doubt delivers on the promise of excessive gore. (Example: why would McCall slash a bad guy with one long knife when he could use two?) But this movie only improves on its predecessor when its title character isn't laying waste to nameless villains.

/Film Rating: 5 out of 10