Not Even a Hurricane Can Stop Denzel Washington in ‘The Equalizer 2’

The Equalizer 2” finds Denzel Washington returning as that angel of death we’ve seen many times in action movies. He lives alone, is handy with everything, reads classic literature in his spare time, and lends a hand to the common citizen in distress. Once in a while he cuts a bad guy’s throat. In the first “The Equalizer” back in 2014, Washington’s character, Robert McCall, battled human traffickers to save a young woman. In this dreary sequel, the movie recycles an old action plot to less satisfying effect. Now McCall has to face off with his old comrades, who are so intent on killing him for vague reasons, they will chase him into a (literal) hurricane.

After re-introducing McCall with a big fight on a train somewhere in Turkey, the film brings us back to Massachusetts, where our hero works as a Lyft driver. He spends his evenings picking up and dropping off the city’s fiends and wanderers. When he isn’t driving McCall likes to read classic literature, with Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” being his latest choice (and it is a great one). Still keeping his past (and present) as a professional assassin once used by the CIA hidden, McCall nonetheless finds time to help those in trouble. When local kids ruin the garden and mural of his apartment, tended by his kind neighbor Fatima (Sakina Jaffrey), McCall uses the incident as an opportunity to help a talented local kid named Miles (Ashton Sanders) practice his art skills. But a new threat arises when McCall’s friend and colleague Susan (Melissa Leo) is brutally killed by assassins in Brussels, while investigating the strange death of another intelligence world figure. McCall meets with former fellow operative Dave York (Pedro Pascal), to get to the bottom of what is happening. It soon becomes clear a clean-up job is underway, and McCall is next in the crosshairs.

“The Equalizer 2” is a sequel that preserves the tone of the main character but doesn’t know how to carry him into new horizons. The director is again Antoine Fuqua, a filmmaker of style and craft. Here he feels a little bored with the material. The screenplay by Richard Wenk strips McCall of any new insights or developments as a character. By the end he still remains a walking shadow who can snap a guy’s arm without effort. This might not matter much in a genre movie if it were less cluttered as a narrative. Fuqua tries to balance the more meaningful aspects of the story with the over the top, at times absurd violence and espionage material. McCall needs to drive Lyft to live (we assume), but in his first scene he’s riding a train in Turkey, disguised as a Muslim, and takes down some gangsters, all to rescue the kidnapped daughter of the local bookstore owner. Who funds such adventures? We assume his former intelligence handlers. Wait, but apparently he was marked off as dead, so he is going rogue? Not clear. It also takes quite a while for the plot to even get cooking, since Fuqua spends a large chunk of the first act simply following McCall around as he reads, lectures Miles on the need to go to school, chats with an old Holocaust survivor (Orson Bean) about a lost painting, and helps an abused prostitute by beating up her wealthy clients. You will learn how to slice someone with a fancy credit card. Once we know what is going on, we can see why Fuqua reserves the actual plot for the second half, since there isn’t much to it.

Once Susan is killed, leaving her scholar husband Brian (Bill Pullman) widowed, McCall gets ready for revenge but the answers are so foggy we wonder how he knows who to kill. After a very slow beginning, the resolution comes in quick sprints. Someone who turns out to be a traitor reveals to McCall he’s a target by whoever is “cleaning up” former agents, without specifically describing who the mastermind is. This leads to McCall leading his pursuers, who all look like Duck Dynasty cast members in combat gear, to a seashore as a hurricane barrels down. The final showdown is a rather stale one, as McCall and a sniper briskly pace around as the storm slaps them around. McCall presumably leads his pursuers here because it’s where his former home is, but you would think after all the killing earlier in the film, it would be easier for him to take them down in a parking lot rather than amid a hurricane. But then that wouldn’t be as cool. Sadly, even the hurricane lacks real juice, and the final combat scene is redundant. Fuqua’s last film, “The Magnificent Seven,” was not a masterpiece, but it had so much more visual exhilaration and a much better story.

“The Equalizer 2” is yet another case of talented people making a hollow movie. Denzel Washington is Denzel Washington, so he brings that presence and rough wisdom he does so well. Fuqua’s images are well-composed, and at least one scene where a character hides behind a bookcase, as assassins scour an apartment, has craft and tension. The early action scenes on their own have a classic, macho rhythm. But you can’t just write a tough guy, you need to give him a place to go.

The Equalizer 2” releases July 20 in theaters nationwide.