Review: Denzel Washington Returns to The Equalizer A Changed Man

In the 2014 Equalizer movie (as the sequel is, directed by Antoine Fuqua and starring Denzel Washington), Washington’s Robert McCall was a man trying to put his deadly past behind him and lead a quiet, isolated life. The problem was that his impulses always led him to help an innocent person he thought was being exploited or harmed in some way. Even that minimal amount of exposure called enough attention to him to make him a target once again. He made it out of that first film with most of the world thinking he was dead, though in a place where he was still able to help people should he decide it was necessary.

Equalizer 2 Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment

So it’s interesting to see how McCall has evolved—“changed” isn’t the right word—in the years he’s been laying low. Written again by Richard Wenk, The Equalizer 2 opens on a train in Turkey, with a spectacular mission-style rescue of a little girl, kidnapped by her Turkish father just to upset the girl's mother, his American ex-wife. We’re not sure if McCall is doing this as a favor or a job, but he’s saving someone being taken advantage of, and that’s all that really matters. He times a fight he has with 4-5 men as if he’s trying to set some sort of personal best, just to amuse himself. Any action movie would be lucky to have a first scene as strong as this, but it’s not really representative of what comes next.

Washington likely wouldn’t trust many directors to tell this particular story, but he and Fuqua have worked together many times before (on Training Day and 2016’s The Magnificent Seven), and there’s clearly a level of trust between the two. In many ways, they bring out the best in each other, and in the case of this film, they are telling a very different type of character study of a man trained to be a killing machine. Washington is the ronin, the good soldier who is still good and trying desperately to leave his soldiering days behind him.

In the small apartment complex where he lives, he’s helping people out in smaller ways. There’s a young man named Miles (Ashton Sanders, from the middle chapter of Moonlight), a would-be artist who is being tempted by drug dealers in the neighborhood to sell for much-need cash. When the garden in the courtyard of the building is vandalized and the walls spray-painted, McCall enlists Miles to help repaint the mural on one wall. McCall also befriends Sam Rubinstein (Orson Bean), a holocaust survivor separated from his sister in the camps, who is trying to recover a long-lost family painting worth millions and the last link he has to his lost sibling. It’s a strange storyline, but it works.

But when an operative and his wife die in what appears to be a murder-suicide, McCall’s old boss Susan (Melissa Leo), one of the few people who knows that he is still alive, and her husband Brian (Bill Pullman), ask him to look at the evidence and crime scene to see if something else might have occurred. In the course of the investigation, a tragedy befalls McCall. He knows immediately that his life is in grave danger but he must get revenge for what has happened. Clandestinely, he taps his old partner (Pedro Pascal), who also believed McCall was dead, and they begin digging deep into the bigger mystery of this trail of bodies, leading to a showdown McCall and the real bad guys, set in the heart of a hurricane (that’s not a metaphor). The climax is so dramatic with winds blowing, debris flying everywhere, and Denzel setting traps for his pursuers that the kid form Home Alone would admire it.

Watching The Equalizer 2 made me think that Washington made this movie about, among other things, a man playing surrogate father to a lost teen to make up for playing a shitty father in Fences a couple years ago. He still manages to put Miles’ life in danger, but it becomes clear that even knowing McCall at a certain point in this story might be a death sentence. There’s a thrilling sequence in McCall’s apartment, as would-be assassins enter while Miles is painting the dining room wall. McCall talks Miles into a hidden safe room via phone and keeps him hidden despite the kid’s claustrophobia and general panic.

This is one of the stranger entries in Washington’s filmography, but I have to admit, I liked the audacity to take a different approach in the telling of a government button man looking to reinvent his life. There are probably one or two too many subplots that don’t really amount to much, but any excuse to see this actor try on different hats as the same character is pretty exciting. This is a mild recommendation; Washington completists will likely be as thrilled as they are perplexed. Did you enjoy this review? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by becoming a patron. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!
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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.