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Non-Review Review: The Equaliser 2

At one point in The Equaliser 2, Robert McCall is listening to a radio forecast of a storm front sweeping through the north east of the United States.

“It’s coming in slow,” the meteorologist explains. “It’s taking it’s time.” In theory, so is The Equaliser 2. The storm is itself a metaphor for both the film and its protagonist, a force of nature descending upon the characters with a slow and steady certainty. The Equaliser 2 is a film that is very consciously taking its time, the script structured in such a way as to prioritise mood and ambiance over plot and pacing. The Equaliser 2 is meant to seem a stately and poetic meditation on violence and the men who commit it. At least in theory.

Yeah, we don’t know why it isn’t called The Sequeliser either.

It is clear what writer Richard Wenk and director Antoine Fuqua are trying to do over the course of the film’s two-hour-and-nine-minute runtime, building a mounting sense of dread towards a cathartic release. However, there is something deadly unsatisfying in this. The Equaliser 2 is not nearly clever enough nor intricate enough to sustain that more relaxed pace. What should be profound is instead belaboured, what should be considered is instead clumsy. Plot threads are broached and disappear. The one that reach their conclusion arrive long after the audience.

The Equaliser 2 forsakes the grotty do-it-yourself brutality of its predecessor, aspiring towards something moving and insightful. Unfortunately, all of that gets lost in a haze. The storm passes overhead, and it seems unlikely that anybody would even notice.

A storm is coming.

Late in The Equaliser 2, it is suggested that Robert McCaul has inspired a young artist to model a superhero after him. This is no surprise. There is something inherently superheroic in the premise, which follows a grizzled old veteran of the intelligence community, who longs to apply his skills to protect his neighbourhood and the people that he cares about. Robert McCaul might not wear a mask, and might not describe himself as “the Equaliser”, but the films position him as an archetypal urban vigilante.

There is a solid argument to be made that Robert McCaul is one of the best big screen adaptations of the classic Marvel Comics character “the Punisher.” Introduced in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man, Frank Castle was a brutal gun-totting anti-hero who sought to visit violence upon the violent. Although never explicitly articulated in the context of the films, the title of “the Equaliser” suggests a similar internal logic. Robert McCaul exists to balance the proverbial scale, to visit evil upon evil so that the righteous might be protected.

“Yeah. I may have taken this cap from the set of Fences. You wanna fight about it?”

The Equaliser was a fairly solid origin story, with a very simple and straightforward premise. Robert McCaul was a retired and widowed veteran who found himself at a loose end, but who was inevitably drawn into the suffering and the struggles of the people around him. The bulk of the movie focused on McCaul avenging himself upon a gang that brutalised a young woman, with various other indications that this was not to be a one-time affair. McCaul developed a taste for this violence, and the film indicated that his quest would continue.

The Equaliser shrewdly side-stepped a lot of the problems that haunt modern live action iterations of the Punisher, most notably the version played by Jon Berenthal on Daredevil and The Punisher. Frank Castle was a product of New York in the seventies and eighties, an urban nightmare of decay and crime. The character transitions awkwardly to the present moment, a white guy taking the law into his own hands.

Dude really wants that five-star “Lyft” review.

Jon Berenthal’s iteration of the character was mono-maniacally fixated on revenge for a specific wrong and tied to a military conspiracy, as if to distance the character from his (unpalatable) core premise. Daredevil suggested that Frank Castle’s war on crime was a war against a specific set of criminals rather than urban vigilantism, while The Punisher played like a prolonged and abstracted season of 24.

The Equaliser arguably side-stepped a lot of these issues. Directed by Antoine Fuqua and starring Denzel Washington, the film avoided the potentially awkward racial politics that would haunt a modern live action iteration of The Punisher. Similarly, The Equaliser focused on its central character’s age and his listlessness, attributes the mainstream live action comic book adaptations tend to steer away from. The Equaliser got away with being an old-fashioned urban vigilante film due to the care taken in its construction, and how it approached this set of clichés.

Uzi or Luzi.

The Equaliser 2 is nowhere near as elegant. Indeed, it often seems to follow the same approach adopted by Daredevil and The Punisher in presenting a gun-totting street-level vigilante for contemporary audiences. The Equaliser 2 is structured in such a way as to retreat from low-level vigilantism and towards more high-concept espionage storytelling. Robert McCaul still occasionally confronts criminals and gangsters, but The Equaliser 2 is more consciously tied up in concepts like the military-industrial complex and conspiracies on foreign soil.

There is something dissonant in this. The crime that drives the plot of The Equaliser 2 does not take place in Boston, but in Brussels. Robert McCaul even travels overseas in order to make his own investigation. This is very jarring, particularly given that The Equaliser 2 tries to retain some of the emphasis on community and togetherness suggested by The Equaliser. The resulting compromise is frustrating; McCaul almost seems to commute between Boston and Brussels, at any given moment separated from one of the film’s two core threads by three thousand miles.

A fair shake.

The Equaliser 2 is unwilling to commit to the urban vigilantism of The Equaliser, and so tries to add an element of international intrigue. The film opens with a teaser that finds McCaul chasing one target towards Istanbul. It feels a strange fit for the character and the template as established, and it doesn’t help matters that the international intrigue is all boilerplate material. The entire plot of The Equaliser 2 was arguably already covered this summer in the opening half-hour of Skyscraper, which leaves the movie feeling rather empty.

At the same time, The Equaliser 2 tries to retain some connection to the grounded tone of its predecessor. McCaul invests himself in the lives of the people around him, trying to help those in need. He finds the missing child of the woman who works in the book store that he frequents, he engages with the sad story of a Holocaust survivor who desperately hopes to find his long lost sister, he takes a young man from the neighbourhood under his wing.

“So… small talk, eh?”

There is something potentially interesting here, carried over from The Equaliser and perhaps inherited from the entire urban vigilante genre. In its best (and smallest) moments, The Equaliser 2 captures the anomie of living in a large urban environment, the sense of disconnect and decay that erodes interpersonal connections and civic bonds. At the start of The Equaliser 2, McCaul is working as a driver for “Lyft”, and the film portrays the weird intimacy of the job. McCaul is silent observer of big moments in the lives of complete strangers. Together and alone, simultaneously.

There are even moments when The Equaliser 2 tries to put the best possible spin on the philosophy and politics of the would-be urban vigilante, as McCaul articulates his worldview. McCaul sees himself as a character who fills a gap left in an anonymous society, the “somebody” who does something that in theory “anybody” could do but “nobody” will do. It is an old-fashioned and idealised conservatism, one that treats the welfare of the community as a personal and individual responsibility.

No Melissa aforethought.

Unfortunately, none of this quite gels. The urban vigilante elements of The Equaliser 2 take a backseat to the blander international espionage. The plotting in The Equaliser 2 is clumsy. Plot points are raised, and then quickly forgotten. Sometimes those elements come back, and sometimes they down. At one point, a McCaul is horrified when a Muslim neighbour’s garden is despoiled and graffiti scrawled on the wall. “You should find who destroyed her garden,” a character advises McCaul. The Islamophobia is quickly dropped to focus on the act of painting over the graffiti.

At another point, McCaul intervenes to prevent another of his young neighbours from joining a criminal gang. There is a tense stand-off. There is some indication that these gang members may seek to retaliate either against McCaul or the young man that he liberated. However, this plot thread is quickly brushed aside and never raised again. Those violent and well-armed young men seem to continue about their lives as if nothing happened. There is a strange aversion to depictions of urban violence in The Equaliser 2.

International scope.

This is a shame, as it leaves a number of interesting ideas underdeveloped. There are moments when it seems like The Equaliser 2 might touch upon the tension of being a story about a gun-totting urban vigilante in the era of Donald Trump, given the plot’s repeated emphasis on the trauma experienced by minorities in both the past and the present; the elderly Jewish man who lost his sister when they were separated at the concentration camps, the Muslim woman whose work is targeted with impunity, the young man marginalised.

However, The Equaliser 2 never allows any of those points to coalesce into a central thesis. Instead, they just sit there inert, almost entirely to fill the space between a stock plot about the murder of an intelligence agent in Brussels that might be intended as part of a larger cover-up that inevitably draws McCaul into its orbit. There is nothing in the primary plot of The Equaliser 2 that is surprising or engaging. It is all just bland and generic.

“I’m sorry, did you say something about my cap?”

This bland plot and the recurring loose ends contribute to a weird sense of bloat and drag on The Equaliser 2, a film that seems to meander and wander in pursuit of a point. There are a few small moments when it seems like this slower pace is intentional, a conscious attempt to offer a more thoughtful and introspective exploration of the film’s central themes and ideas. The Equaliser was just smart enough to suggest some nuance and insight beneath a grotty revenge thriller premise. The Equaliser 2 boldly attempts to double down on this.

There are certain points in the film where The Equaliser 2 comes close to attaining some pulpy profundity, most notably in its recurring storm motif. The idea of a hero as a force of nature is hardly original, but there is an appeal in it. The Equaliser 2 repeatedly likens McCaul to the storm that threatens to wreak havok upon the north-eastern seaboard. The climax unfolds in a small down as winds rage and the sea belts at the shore.

Cloudy with a chance of Denzel.

The storm openly conspires to assist McCaul at the action climax, the wind quite literally blowing in his favour at certain points and the sea even helpfully washing away his sins. In one small moment, McCaul seeks shelter in an old bakery. He slits open bags of sugar and starts the fans in the kitchen. Even indoors, McCaul is the storm that rages. It’s undoubtedly heavy-handed and clumsy, but there’s something appeal in the simplicity of that iconography.

The climax of The Equaliser was endearing in its commitment to cathartic violence, with McCaul luring his would-be assassins into a hardware story before brutally improvising a variety of deathtraps. It was very base, but also very satisfying. The climax of The Equaliser 2 aspires towards something more lyrical, unfolding in an abandoned town towards the coast. “Push to the ocean!” yells one of his aggressors as they try to flush out their target.

“So we’re agreed. The third one will be The Threequeliser.”

In a clumsy (but charming) piece of symbolism, The Equaliser had introduced Robert McCaul reading The Old Man and the Sea, because subtlety is a waste in a film like this. The Equaliser 2 effectively doubles down on that heavy-handed metaphor. The Equaliser already confirmed that McCaul was an old man, searching for a purpose in a world that had deemed him surplus to requirement. The Equaliser 2 pushes that idea to its logical extreme, inquiring, “What if Robert McCaul is both the old man and the sea?”

There’s a pulpy thrill in that idea, in the application of this awkward symbolism to a grotty old-fashioned urban vigilante thriller. Unfortunately, it suggests a more playful and more canny movie than The Equaliser 2 delivers. The Equaliser 2 is largely leaden, tangled in loose ends and burdened by cliché.

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One Response

  1. I always thought there was more A-Team than Punisher in The Equalizer. Frank Castle isn’t there for anyone else’s sake, he’s there to make war on criminals. He tries to limit collateral damage, and from time to time he’ll wind up working with or helping out victims, but it’s never his main goal; his main goal is to punish the guilty (hence the name), not help the victims. Whereas McCall, both in the original series and the movie, was there to help the people who’d fallen through the cracks, the ones that the authorities and “legitimate” society should have helped but wouldn’t.

    Honestly, I’d say there’s *lots* of room for that kind of vigilante story in the modern landscape. Especially if you expand the plots beyond the obvious stories of “gangsters oppress poor helpless citizens” and into murkier stories of neglect, abuse, or both, in which the authorities tend to either not help or be part of the problem.

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