Blue collar heroes who administer vigilante justice tend to be ideologically interesting characters, squashed by the same system they see themselves as morally above. The protagonist of The Equalizer films, Robert McCall (Denzel Washington), espouses a conservative ethos, believing bureaucratised institutions have reduced the capacity for basic fairness. Like virtually any character, in life as in film, he regards himself as the hero of his narrative.
In this middling sequel to its serviceable 2014 predecessor, director Antoine Fuqua unquestioningly adopts the same position then doubles down on flaky philosophising. Fuqua tells us his protagonist has a positive or ‘equalising’ impact on society, arguing sadists can be great guys if only you get to know them. Both Equalizer films endorse small acts of kindness while turning a blind eye to mortal sins.
In The Equalizer 2, McCall scrubs away at a graffitied wall as he explains to sort-of protégé Miles (Ashton Sanders) his motivations for performing such menial work. This doubles as an explanation of the film’s bedrock philosophies. I’m doing work work that needs to be done, says the protagonist, which anyone can do and yet nobody does. Here is a man who recognises a problem and is prepared to pull his socks up, the dirty wall a crude metaphor for cleaning up society.
a good 40 minutes transpires before the story even begins to find purpose, let alone clarity
The first film (which pretentiously opened with a Mark Twain quote about the importance of finding one’s purpose) was so fond of its protagonist as a proletariat of humble mind and noble work ethic that its final action scene unfolded in his place of employ: a Bunnings Warehouse type supplies store. The narrative had a concise arc. McCall’s friendship with a sex worker (Chloë Grace Moretz) inspired him to unleash the dormant, military-trained killer within, playing up to Denzel Washington’s strengths as an every man with hidden complexity.
In the sequel a good 40 minutes transpires before the story even begins to find purpose, let alone clarity. It involves McCall avenging the death of one of his friends. By that point the weirdness of the very first scene, in which the otherwise sensibly behaved (relative to the genre) hero dons a fake beard and a kufi to pose as a Muslim on a train (!?) has worn off. This confounding intro belongs to a different kind of movie – a spy spoof like Austin Powers.
In The Equalizer 2, McCall, our cold-blooded killer and all-round great guy, reminds us of his virtuousness by holding ad hoc pseudo youth counselling sessions. The film hits a low point when McCall, in a desperate attempt to inspire Miles, screams at him “you don’t know what death is!” after imploring the perplexed kid, who has been hanging out with the wrong crowd, to shoot him in the face. McCall then walks into a lens flare, bathed in the light of his piousness. Washington is a great actor but this scene is way too on the nose to work.
The Equalizer 2 has some flashes of bravado, including a storm-set final showdown that (like the strange introductory scene) feels like it belongs to a different movie. Director Eli Roth’s recent – and underrated – Death Wish remake is a sharper and smarter film that treads similar ground. Roth was at least conscious of the difference between hypocrisy and irony. He illuminates the latter in a memorable split-screen showing the protagonist, a surgeon, removing bullets from patients on one side of the frame and firing off bullets on the other. As if to say: if the ‘hero’ of this story is part of the solution, he is also part of the problem.