The Equalizer 2 almost feels like the third entry, not the second, in this franchise reboot of the 1980s CBS television series. A number of characters, subplots, and backstory details feel as if they’ve been previously posited, when only Melissa Leo and Bill Pullman return to reprise their roles from the 2014 original. Why, for example, does the film begin with Denzel Washington‘s Robert McCall in disguise on a Turkish train, where he’s confronting a group of gangsters over a kidnapped girl? It’s not a flashback to his early years, but an out-of-character return to his lifestyle as a lethal, shady spy that he’s undertaken to save the daughter of a friend. It’s jarring and weird, though not necessarily unwelcome; more than anything, it just feels like a studio mandate to begin the film with a burst of action, logic and continuity be damned.
The film otherwise ambles its way out of the gate, finding McCall working as an Lyft driver, reading, and quietly living in a cozy, low-rent apartment. Perhaps emboldened by the events of the previous film, he’s less afraid to rough up some undesirables — one badass highlight finds Robert casually snapping the arms of a bunch of coke-dusted finance bros — but he’s also, in an echo of the previous film, trying to serve as a mentor of sorts to some good-hearted locals. The strangest is an old holocaust survivor, Sam (Orson Bean), who McCall regularly Lyfts around — his purpose here never quite makes sense — but there’s also Miles (Ashton Sanders), a young art student torn between his love for drawing and the temptations of gang life. When old colleague Susan Plummer (Leo) is murdered by what appears to be a government agent, McCall is again mobilized into action, teaming up with an old partner, Dave York (Pedro Pascal), to help secure justice for Susan. Inevitably, this leads him knee-deep into a conspiracy involving some unsavory, yet high-ranking, figures.
There’s a plodding nature to the film’s early scenes, with a bit too much time spent on McCall’s daily routine before the action begins in earnest. Even once the pieces begin coming together, there’s a disorienting aspect to all the table-setting. York factors heavily into McCall’s previous career, but has his relevance and backstory essentially fast-tracked to the audience, leaving the character something of a blur. The stories and visuals offered regarding McCall’s ex-wife and oceanside past aren’t presented as new information, so much as reminders of information we haven’t yet received.
What director Antoine Fuqua gets right, however, is the action. The Equalizer 2 never comes close to the delicious highs of like-minded flicks like Taken or John Wick, but Fuqua does improve upon the sloppy, poorly lit squabbles of the original. Here, the myriad struggles and chases are vacuum-sealed in tension, often building incrementally toward a crisp, suitably violent catharsis. The villains are infinitely more compelling than the gangsters from the last go-around; we don’t learn much about the heavily armed antagonists, but that doesn’t make the five-on-one climax any less gripping. The Equalizer 2 is undoubtedly bloated, but it earns the patience of its action sequences.
Of course, it helps having Washington along, who here builds on the charisma and likability he previously brought to the character. Washington finds poignancy in moments both placid and loud. He sells a memory-laden glance at an old photo, or a yearning gaze upon shores he once walked in tandem, but he also shares a few shockingly powerful scenes with Miles, making the pair’s relationship much less perfunctory than it could’ve been. It’s wonderful to see the ways in which Washington can bring out new shades in a young actor like Sanders, previously best known for 2016’s Oscar winner Moonlight.
The franchise, however, feels less solid than Washington’s performance. There’s a formulaic quality to it, an aversion to the basics of world-building that gives The Equalizer 2 an outdated feel in a cinematic landscape where more attention is being paid to continuity and myth-making. Right now, it’s unclear where McCall goes next; what are we to do with the new revelations about his past? There’s no direct impact to be felt on the grander arc of the films’ universe, so it’s easy to imagine the threequel starting from scratch yet again. If that’s the case, it’s going to take more than just Washington for audiences to keep coming back.