A story of a former soldier or lawman exacting violent revenge over the death of a friend is not a new tale for a movie maker to take on, especially an American movie maker. You could think of many in the lead role for such a film, from an Eastwood to a Stallone or a Willis. They’ll give flinty, heroic performances, and probably not talk too much except with witty lines to despatch villains. Their cause is just, and they deliver their justice with violence. Usually, they kill said villains. These films are not always but often delivered in an elevated action style, so as not to be taken too seriously. They aim to get our pulse rate up, and they don’t – usually – want us to dwell on the morality of their heroes being executioners.
There are exceptions to this, and The Equalizer 2 is one example. And what a puzzling one it is. In many ways it is a film of a good deal of quality. It is certainly very well directed and acted. Its enigma lies in the character of its hero, Robert McCall, played by the award winning and seriously good actor Denzel Washington.
Washington’s McCall is a widower. He’s calm and courteous. He’s community minded and helps his neighbours when he can. He’s friendly both with an elderly Jewish man and with an Arab woman who tends a garden. He tries to help a young black kid stay out of trouble. He reads Marcel Proust. He keeps a meticulously tidy house. This is a character well settled in an inclusive liberal America. He’s not at home in Trumpland. This is not a role you could imagine inhabited by the likes of Willis et al.
And yet, because he’s a former special forces type of soldier, McCall will avenge those who are wronged. This often means killing bad guys. As we saw in the first Equalizer and again here, McCall’s killing is done with efficiency, skill, and poise. He is quick, quiet, and ruthless. And when his killing is done, he appears to show no remorse over the punishment he has meted out. In one scene, he tells a group of men his only regret is that he can only kill them once. Now this is a character you could imagine those other aforementioned actors playing.
So this is a tension within the film that pulls at you all the way through. If you switch off your internal morality button there is a well crafted thriller at play here, and the award winning Washington remains a wonderfully compelling actor. He has presence, grace, and an innate intelligence about him. His interplay with his young black neighbour Miles, played by Ashton Sanders, is a highlight. Washington displays lovely comic timing when he invites Miles in and they discuss having a meal together. In another scene, Washington takes a well worn scenario of one character inviting another to shoot him – to prove how difficult this really is – and elevates it into a truly gripping confrontation.
The other key point here is that this does not in any way present as a trashy action flick. Apart from Washington and Anders, Melissa Leo, Bill Pullman and Pedro Pascal all give convincing performances. And director Antoine Fuqua, who has directed Washington several times before, including the actor’s Oscar winning performance in 2001’s Training Day, gives us plenty of well crafted images and sequences to digest. Be they the urban landscapes of Boston, or the mountains of Turkey, Fuqua gives us time to absorb the environment. He also puts together a thrilling action sequence. We’ve seen countless fights in cars, but one here in which Washington fights a bad guy in the back seat and steers his careening car is truly gripping. And a shoot out in a hurricane swept town has a western feel about it, something like Clint Eastwood’s final confrontation in Pale Rider. It too is memorable.
Could such a person as Robert McCall exist? More importantly, if they did, how do we treat them? The Equalizer 2 clearly favours the tortured hero image. Vigilanteism is not a place we’re meant to go in this film. But that’s nigh impossible. At movie’s end, for all the pleasure to be gained from its craft, and from Washington’s impressive acting skills, the story presents what many non-Americans may feel is a quintessential image of America: it sees itself a liberal and caring country, but one entirely justified to use ultimate force to right the wrongs it perceives.
The irony here is that the story is also, of course, based on an old British television series. But then the Brits know a thing or two about projecting power, or they used to.