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Denzel Has No Fury Like 'The Equalizer 2'

Business Needs A Lyft, Crooks To Be Erased: The gig economy catches up with McCall (Denzel Washington) as he sets out to make things equal in the sequel.
Columbia Pictures
Business Needs A Lyft, Crooks To Be Erased: The gig economy catches up with McCall (Denzel Washington) as he sets out to make things equal in the sequel.

"Fridging," the overdue-for-retirement habit among male storytellers of violating and/or murdering thinly-sketched lady characters simply to motivate a male hero's righteous payback, is alive and well in The Equalizer 2.That's a big, ugly pimple on the symmetrical-but-unsmiling face of this otherwise-not-bad follow-up to 2014's Denzel Washington-headlined reboot of the old TV show.

The Equalizer's Reagan-era incarnation, which aired during the same years Washington was on St. Elsewhere, had Edward Woodward as an old spy in New York who kept the nightmares — or maybe just the tedium of retirement — at bay by using his Very Particular Set of Skills to protect the meek and right wrongs and such. The 21st-century version is exactly that, relocated 200 miles up the road to Boston, and with the bloody violence dialed up 200 percent. Washington is already a decade older than Woodward was when his adventures were the stuff of CBS primetime. His character — soldier-turned-C.I.A. throat-puncher Robert McCall, now retired — is, wait for it, a widower who remains in mourning many years after his wife's death.

At least Melissa Leo, reprising her role as his former C.I.A. boss, gets a handful of scenes to play before she's beaten up and killed off. Two other lady characters are victimized, in separate incidents, without even getting an opportunity to speak.

If you can stomach that — and it's a lot to stomach, worse than the occasional exposed-guts gore — then The Equalizer 2 is a reasonably well-written and (of course) beautifully acted serving of geriatric-virility violence porn, with Washington on the trail of Leo's assassins. Screenwriter Richard Wenk's orders were apparently to spice up the investigation-and-vengeance formula with a few monologues that might help the two-time Oscar-winning star to feel like he's in another August Wilson play. Wenk accomplishes this by giving McCall an at-risk, college-age buddy played with by Moonlight's Ashton Sanders. The kid is a talented aspiring artist who has fallen in with a bad crowd — one from whom McCall extricates him, in the movie's single silliest scene, at gunpoint. Gunpoints, in point of fact. Plural. As a less credulity-straining intervention, McCall gives the kid a copy of Ta-Nehisi Coates' memoir Between the World and Me(which we see him reading himself in the opening scene) and urges him to read it.

Once again, Wenk and director Antoine Fuqua (who both teamed with Washington on the remake of The Magnificent Seven, as well as the previous Equalizer) spend a lot of time observing just how determined McCall is to do right by his neighbors while otherwise leading a monastic existence of reading and celibacy. Not all his activism involves wrist locks and femoral-artery-slicing. He also scrubs graffiti off the walls of his apartment building ("Anyone could do it, but no one does!") and makes regular visits to a Holocaust survivor at a nursing home.

He's a Lyft driver in this movie, perhaps because killing a bunch bad guys at at hardware store where he was working in the last one, using a drill and other home-improvement essentials, required him to find a new gig. In one montage, McCall takes silent note of the vast swath of humanity finding brief succor in the back of his car, and The Equalizer 2 threatens to become a bizarro remake of Taxi Driverwherein Travis Bickle is just melancholy instead of sociopathic. Certainly Bickle would've envied Old Man McCall's gift for hand-to-hand combat, which appears to make him invulnerable even when fighting covert-ops types who've had the same training he's had, but are decades younger.

Whether you buy it or not, this notion of a still-deadly old soldier committed to decency and literacy and tough love is awfully seductive. We even see McCall lay down two crisp twenties at a brick-and-mortar bookstore for a deluxe hardcover edition of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time. How can you not love a kneecap-shattering, pep-talk-delivering, Dockers-wearing, pensioner vigilante who stands up to bullies and supports independent booksellers?

Washington's bootstrappy monologues ("'Man' ain't spelled G-U-N, son!") are pretty much it for The Equalizer 2's spectacle quotient. His fourth pairing with Fuqua is the kind of movie that used to be a called a programmer, a middle-to-low budget affair that turns a profit by not overspending on production value. Throughout the film, radios and TVs foretell an impending storm, and sure enough, the this movie's protracted climax features Denzel taking on a team of amoral commandos in a squall, as though he is merely the instrument of a retribution being handed down from on high.

After stints as a big-box hardware store clerk and Lyft driver, who's to say where the gig economy will find him next? Working cases out of his gluten-free pet bakery? Only time, and the inevitable The Equalizer 3, will tell.

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