I’m not a big fan of the term “guilty pleasure”, for it implies that people should feel shame for the simple act of liking a work of art. However, I must begrudgingly admit that term applies, at least for me, to Antoine Fuqua’s The Equalizer movies. They work as a kind of reverse Death Wish where the vigilante figure, a calm and reserved lover of humanity and the little guy, uses his special set of skills to be judge, jury, and executioner on the powerful. There’s a perverse thrill of seeing this kind of violence used against people who, in the real world, rarely suffer repercussions for their actions, and in that way, The Equalizer 2 is a smashing success. It appeals to our lizard brain’s desire for vengeance in a way that’s both brutal and unforgiving.
By day, former black ops operative Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) works as Lyft driver in the Boston area. By night, he’s willing to go above and beyond to help people that happen to come into his life. Whether that means traveling to Turkey to rescue a kidnapped girl and return her to her mother, or if it’s just a matter of beating up a bunch of rich white kids who abused a female intern. If you cross McCall, you’re going to get the business. So you really have to pity the poor schmucks who kill his best friend, which sends McCall on the warpath to find the murderers while still making time to mentor Miles (Ashton Sanders), a young man who lives in McCall’s building.
Rather than upend the formula that made the first Equalizer a success, Fuqua and screenwriter Richard Wenk stick to the script of letting Washington absolutely destroy bad guys interspersed with doling out words of wisdom and trying to live a quiet life. McCall is basically a warrior monk, not seeking out trouble, but always there to deliver swift and violent retribution when an injustice comes across his path. He’s a superhero with his own set of precognitive skills and no doubt that he’ll come out on top. And if this is the way we get Denzel Washington to play a superhero, so be it.
And yet there’s still the uncomfortable morality of McCall’s actions. McCall is not a wild vigilante, seeking out those who personally wronged him and doling out street justice to any thug that crosses his path. As opposed to something like Death Wish, where in the new iteration owning a gun and killing people makes you more of a man, McCall comes right out and tells Miles that “Man is not spelled g-u-n.” McCall will use weapons when he has to, but he’s more likely to beat you into submission with his bare hands. He’s a skilled, trained fighter, so rather than being an everyman, he’s a superman.
However, he’s a superman that still uses violence as a direct solution. When he beats up the rich kids who abused an intern, nothing in the long term has really changed. They may confess to the cops, but there are systemic injustices that McCall has no intention of addressing. The Equalizer isn’t that kind of movie where someone takes on the system and rebuilds it in a meaningful way. It’s about immediate gratification of a bad guy does something bad, and Robert McCall comes along to knock the bad guy’s teeth out. It’s about making a difference about the lives of the individual rather than society at large, and that’s fine. It lets us indulge the darker parts of our psyche where we believe that all that it takes to make things right is bad people getting destroyed by a good guy. It’s a superhero formula rendered into an R-rated thriller.
And oh does Fuqua relish his R-rating. I won’t deny the giddy thrill of knowing some poor bastard is about to get equalized by McCall. These movies believe in violent retribution, and they don’t shortchange the audience on the violence. No punches are pulled, and there’s a delightful/sickening punch to every bone broken and every artery severed. Equalizer 2 marks the first time Washington has ever done a sequel, and while he’s no stranger to the action-thriller genre, you can see the appeal of a movie like this where he gets to cut loose and be an absolutely badass in a heroic mold.
I don’t really feel good about like the Equalizer movies because I know that they dwell in a grey area where my morality clashes against my baser desires for violent delights. Yes, the film is completely predictable from start to finish with maybe the brief exemption of what will happen to Miles. Yes, Robert McCall is not the most interesting character Washington has played in his storied career, but he’s still a magnetic presence on screen. I know why I shouldn’t like The Equalizer 2, and yet I’d be thrilled if they ended up churning out a new Equalizer movie every few years.