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Up until now, Denzel Washington has been one of very few Hollywood stars not to try and build a franchise. He graduated from television in the late 1980s, playing Dr. Philip Chandler on St. Elsewhere, and in nearly 30 years on the big screen he never reprised a film role. That streak now comes to an end with Antoine Fuqua's The Equalizer 2, a sequel to the fall 2014 hit -- and while Robert McCall is unquestionably a part well-suited for a follow-up story, you leave the theater wishing there was a certain "worth the wait" quality to the movie that just isn't there.
In an idealized world, the reason why Denzel Washington would break his no-sequel streak for The Equalizer 2 is because the script was just far too good to pass up, but watching the movie you realize that couldn't be the case. What Antoine Fuqua and screenwriter Richard Wenk have cooked up isn't terrible -- as it finds some success with fun performances and cool, well-orchestrated action -- but the problem is that the recipe those ingredients are baked into is tremendously bland. Cool as it may be to see Robert McCall do his thing, the main plot of the film is one we've seen in a thousand and one other action movies, and as soon as you start seeing what's unfolding it's very easy to start to tune out.
A description needs to be sparse when it comes to details, as it would be tremendously easy to give everything away, but the story picks up with Robert McCall a couple years after the events of the first Equalizer, and as teased at the end of that movie, he has continued his mission of trying to help the powerless even the playing field with those that maliciously hurt them. Beyond that he lives a solitary life, making money as a Lyft driver in his Massachusetts community, and assisting those around him that he can support.
Unfortunately, he gets pulled back into his old life under rather tragic circumstances. One of the most important people in his life winds up being killed as part of criminal conspiracy, and it swiftly sends him into action. Investigating the case and collecting evidence -- the action weirdly ping-ponging between Massachusetts, Washington D.C., and Brussels, Belgium -- he begins a merciless campaign not only for personal vengeance, but for justice... with things getting more bland, blatant and trope-y as it develops.
One of the greatest strengths of The Equalizer was the way in which the story adapted the brand's television origins, specifically by interlacing episodic-esque side-missions that Robert completes while simultaneously dealing with the A-plot. The Equalizer 2 tries to replicate this to a degree, but the sequel's script has a very different dynamic between the narratives. While the smaller stories served to balance with the main one in the first film, here they almost act as a refreshing and much more interesting distraction. Rather than track a bland mission with lame twists and obvious villains, it's much more interesting to see Robert try and put a young neighbor (Ashton Sanders) on the path to a better life; help a Holocaust survivor (Orson Bean) reconnect with his past; and help a young girl against a bunch of abusive, douche-y assholes. And because the movie so clearly introduces these bits just for the occasional bit of action, it still makes it hard to really engage.
The obvious great strength is simply the power of Denzel Washington, who just makes all of the drama, intensity and ass-kicking look effortless and incredibly natural. At his core, Robert McCall is a character who truly cares about people with every fiber of himself, and it's always amazing to see Washington exhibit and exercise that passion. It legitimately powers everything, as even at 63 years old it gives him the stature and imposing figure that not only lets you believe it when he beats the hell from a room full of guys, but expect it to happen at every turn.
To his credit, Antoine Fuqua also does construct a handful of impressive action sequences, some hinted at above, and he actually finishes it with an epic and exciting final showdown -- isolated to an evacuated island town being bombarded by an intense and violent hurricane. It doesn't offer up the same kind of creative opportunities as the Home Depot-knockoff-set finale in the first one, and the stakes aren't as high because you're simply not as invested, but there is some smart innovation at play that is well shot. Like its predecessor, The Equalizer 2 smartly goes for the R-rating, and it does ultimately allow for some visceral, shocking conflict. It's just too bad that there isn't much substance supporting it.
The Equalizer 2 is a less-than-mediocre sequel to a mediocre action film, so there weren't exactly a ton of expectations at play here. That being said, as Denzel Washington's step into the ever-growing world of franchise filmmaking, things could be a lot worse. The material isn't quite worthy of his eminence as a two-time Academy Award-winner, but it's a character that plays to his strengths, and above anything he's still immensely fun to watch. There surely are some fantastic tales to tell with this character, and that potential still exists, but this really isn't one of them.