Director: Antoine Fuqua
Stars: Denzel Washington, Pedro Pascal, Ashton Sanders
Back when I was a teenager I had a VHS copy of U.S. Marshals, the also-ran sequel to The Fugitive. That film’s star Harrison Ford had bolted the fledgling franchise. Instead it was Tommy Lee Jones who reprised his role, hunting down Wesley Snipes with fresh-faced back-up from Robert Downey, Jr.
U.S. Marshals wasn’t as good as its popular predecessor. It struggled to garner good reviews, was stilted, awkwardly paced, wonky and generic. A footnote in 90’s cinema that most have forgotten about. But I liked it. Even for its flaws (which even then I recognised) I liked it. I used to watch it quite a bit even.
Flashforward to a couple of years ago and Ben Affleck starred in a pleasingly loopy but disastrously plotted thriller called The Accountant. He played a savant who’d go all John Wick on you when he wasn’t being really good at maths. Anna Kendrick fancied him and J.K. Simmons sat on a sofa thinking about him. It too was a ponderous affair that made two hours feel long. And yet, I liked it. There’s something about a half-baked thriller that somehow gets the ingredients wrong, upsets the mixture, but comes out with distinct flavours anyway, in spite of the mess in the kitchen. Something bittersweet.
Enter The Equalizer 2, ironically one of the most uneven movies to appear in a while. It slots squarely into this same curious nook in the corner of the thriller genre. Things about it are great. Whole sequences of it are great. Other bits are fine. And some of it is really awful. But I liked it.
Denzel Washington reprises his role from the first movie, back as morally righteous government hitman turned civilian vigilante Robert McCall. This is the first time Washington has made a sequel, strange as that may seem. The pull here is likely director Antoine Fuqua; the two of them have worked together consistently.
The movie opens – anachronistically – aboard a train bound for Istanbul, setting itself up with Bond-like ambitions as we find McCall continuing his work as an avenging angel, sporting a fake beard and in the process of rescuing someone’s kidnapped daughter from Turkish bad boys. Its a strange false promise. Actually, the movie will spend most of its time hopping between McCall’s Boston home and DC (that is when its not checking in on a rote subplot in Brussels that comically stresses the location on screen every time we cut there, as if the European architecture wasn’t tipping it at all).
The wheels turn slowly here. For McCall daily life involves reading, working as a taxi driver and imparting his wisdom on a talented local kid named Miles (Moonlight‘s Ashton Sanders), whom he fears will fall into the gangster lifestyle. Connecting the dots to staged executions on another continent takes its time.
Nevertheless, some of the best bits of The Equalizer 2 can be found in this leisurely ramp-up. The scenes of McCall doing his part-time taxi routine evoke fantasies of another movie altogether; a low-key character drama in the style of Abbas Kiarostami that perhaps exists in a parallel universe somewhere. And as dramatically inert as some of the material is, the cast really dig into it for fertile performances.
Washington isn’t playing this as a two-bit action sequel. He is as committed to McCall as any role, whether that means ‘big’ acting – like a scene of conflict with Sanders’ Miles in a high-rise stairwell – or the aforementioned scenes of a man quietly driving at night. Sanders makes as much of the opportunity, too. This A-game acting elevates the film, encouraging you to believe it is more than it appears to be.
Things get a little sloppy. Subplots are everywhere (the one with Orson Bean really ought to have been excised altogether), the script gets clumsy (what kind of assassin doesn’t put his phone on silent?) and the dialogue clunks (“I’m the only friend you’ve got” says the only friend McCall’s got). As The Equalizer 2 hits the 90 minute mark, it teeters on the brink of tedium.
But then, out of thin air, the film finds a second wind and more-so with a bravura showdown set in the midst of a tropical storm. In fact, think Home Alone in a hurricane but with sniper rifles and you’re most of the way there. Goofy? Sure. But its terrific fun. It also calls to mind the finale of Clint Eastwood’s sorely underrated Western Pale Rider.
Fuqua can get frustrating sometimes. The calm after the storm is rudely punctuated by the film’s score, thuddingly mapping an emotional beat we’d already found. And this is emblematic of a movie studded with blunders but appealing just the same. The Equalizer 2 probably isn’t that good, on balance. But it has enough. It has heart. And its trying… just, y’know, only some of the time.
U.S. Marshals. The Accountant. This. Most latter-day Ridley Scott films. These are the movies that time will forget. Spare a thought for the uneven, overlong, laborious but still strangely pleasing thriller. I know I do. Just don’t let little things like “what on Earth happened to Bill Pullman’s character?” worry you.