The Simple Pleasures of the 'Equalizer' Movies
Only Denzel can equalize the odds for us.
In The Equalizer movies, Denzel Washington plays Robert McCall, a former Marine and DIA officer who goes around helping people to solve their various problems. Maybe their pension got stolen or their place of business was defrauded. Whatever the situation is, McCall is on the case — so long as you are in a geographically proximate area to McCall when your problem arises and it happens to catch his attention. (He doesn’t exactly have a systematic way for solving societal ills, sadly).
In the universe of the Equalizer there are normal, everyday, hardworking people and there are those who seek to oppress, extort, and terrorize them. The moral universe is simple and McCall stands against the oppressors. Said oppressors are generally no match for McCall, whose primary skills involve going into rooms filled with dirtbag criminals, using his mind to slow everything down into bullet time, predicting the movements of everyone around him Sherlock Holmes-style, then murdering them all in highly efficient fashion.
I watched the entire Equalizer trilogy this week and while I enjoy them, they are not great films. The first Equalizer film is probably the strongest, as McCall faces off against a worthy villain, Nicolai Itchenko (played by a delightfully creepy Marton Csoskas). McCall has angered the Russian mob by taking out some local henchman, so Itchenko goes on a warpath to identify and destroy McCall. The film concludes as the two parties face off in a Home Depot equivalent and all of Itchenko’s men get impaled by various household items. It’s perfectly fun dad movie fare.
The Equalizer 2 has McCall avenging the death of a friend but the set pieces are far less interesting and the scope less grand. The concluding confrontation that takes place in an abandoned New England beach town feels weightless, like it’s happening on a different planet, and contains few memorable moments.
The Equalizer 3 is probably the weakest of them all. It’s been years since the events of the previous two films and one of McCall’s quests has taken him to Italy where he eventually ends up recuperating in a gorgeous seaside town. McCall is finally starting to enjoy the simple things in life and dreaming of a retirement where he’s not murdering important criminals all the time. But this reverie is interrupted when mobsters start applying pressure to local homeowners and business owners to sell their property in order for them to be converted to casinos and luxury apartments. Even quaint Italian townspeople are not immune to the insidious reach of capitalism.
Of course, McCall decides to take action and tries to free the locals from their oppressors. But while Equalizer 3 amps up the gore, the action scenes are even less imaginative than the two previous films, and they are few and far between. Sometimes it feels like the people making these movies don’t understand why the audience is watching: we just want to see Denzel murder bad guys in creative ways! Our campaign slogan is “Let the Equalizer equalize!” It’s not that hard and sadly this film spends a lot of time denying us this desire.
I was also hoping that The Equalizer 3 would in some way force McCall to reckon with the fact that he’s murdered (by my count) a shit-ton of guys over the years. Every Equalizer film, including this one, alludes to McCall’s past but none of them result in any meaningful reflection about vigilantism or the emotional/psychological/spiritual costs of extrajudicial killing. It’s tough to make a movie about regret when the thing being regretted is Denzel kicking all kinds of evil henchman ass.
All that said, I can’t be too bothered by The Equalizer 3. The film is easily the best looking out of the three, shot mostly on the Amalfi Coast and with plenty of scenic vistas. Dakota Fanning plays a CIA agent named Emma Collins and while her character is given virtually nothing of interest to do, it’s still nice to see a mini Man on Fire reunion.
But The Equalizer 3 also reaffirms the central thesis of the first two films. The Equalizer trilogy promotes a comforting fiction. Taken together, these films suggests that maybe, somewhere out there, there’s a force for good out there that seeks to balance out the formidable forces of evil that surround and threaten us. And that maybe, that force for good has a calm, reassuring voice that sounds suspiciously like Denzel Washington’s.
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On my YouTube channel, Scott Mendelson and I discussed six lessons from the summer 2023 box office. Note: You may want to fast forward to around 21 minutes in to skip some of our technical issues.