The Equalizer 2, much like its 2014 predecessor, is an old-fashioned kind of action film. Which is to say, its unrepentantly violent but possessed of a conservative moralism that smacks of neo-fascism. Its fascistic in the way that many action films are, in that its pure, often fatal violence is presented as entirely justified because of the protagonist’s unwavering moral compass. While I’m not exactly aligned with these politics, I prefer the honesty of their representation here – clear-eyed, dispassionate, within the realms of realism – to the heightened tone of, say, John Wick and its sequel.
If my social media feed is anything to go by, I’ve likely aggravated the bulk of my readers, so let’s unpack that assertion. The John Wick films are built around the aestheticisation of violence: luscious lighting, slick suits and carefully-crafted cinematography. Yet there’s something dishonest about that, because despite Wick’s heightened mythology – elaborated upon to diminishing returns in the sequel – the films exist in close proximity to reality, making it hard to guiltlessly enjoy the brutality on display.
The Equalizer and its sequel instead opt for asceticisation, positioning Denzel Washington’s stoic protagonist as a monkish retiree who only resorts to violence when absolutely necessary as when, say, European mobsters complicated his ability to complete his ‘100 Books to Read Before You Die’ list. He’s cool in the way that divorced dads with a modest vinyl collection imagine themselves to be; resolutely analogue despite working for Lyft and furnishing his apartment with surveillance cameras and a panic room. He’s stubbornly opinionated, offering stern advice – and, ultimately, assistance – to teenagers (local would-be hoodlum Ashton Sanders) and retirees (Orson Bean) alike.
As Richard Wenk’s screenplay helpfully underlines in its final act, Washington’s character, Robert McCall, is essentially a superhero. His superpowers aren’t super-strength or flight, but a dispassionate ability to read his opponent’s motivations and, while he’s at it, kick their arse. His signature move is to time his takedowns with a digital watch, suggesting the precision and professionalism of the mayhem he inflicts. He’s not as lethal here as he was in The Equalizer – many of his victims walk away from their beatings – but he’s just as indestructible.
That surety is shared by Antoine Fuqua’s steady cinematography. The Equalizer films aren’t exciting; they’re meticulous, like a masculine power trip procedural. Washington, well into his seventh decade, isn’t able to – or isn’t interested in – performing the kind of stunt choreography of a Keanu Reeves or Tom Cruise, but by positioning him as a kind of assassin savant, Fuqua makes his action sequences at once plausible and gripping. (Innovation helps here too; the finale is staged in the midst of a hurricane and includes the most imaginative use of flour I’ve yet seen on the silver screen.)
Here’s where I find myself preferring Robert McCall to John Wick, even as I’d prefer a more fantastical take on the subject matter. The dispassionate framing of McCall’s violence feels truer than Wick’s heightened stylism, particularly when paired with a passing criticism of McCall’s moral culpability (absent in the first film, but gently underlined here). You go to these movies to see people stabbed and shot and their necks snapped in that way that every action movie hero snaps bad guys’ necks. John Wick wants you to be wowed; The Equalizer 2 wants you to be impressed, but also appalled. Personally, I prefer to walk out my action movies a little appalled. Your mileage may vary.