THE EQUALIZER 3 ½
R, 109 mins.
2023, R, 109 mins.
Denzel Washington as Robert McCall / Dakota Fanning as Agent Collins / Gaia Scodellaro as Aminah / David Denman as Frank Conroy / Eugenio Mastrandrea as Gio / Remo Girone as Enzo / Sonia Ammar as Chiarah / Daniele Perrone as Angelo / Andrea Scarduzio as Vincent Quaranta / Andrea Dodero as MarcoDirected by Antoine Fuqua / Written by Richard Wenk
Midway through THE EQUALIZER 3 - the third and reportedly last film in this action thriller series based loosely on the 1980s TV series of the same name - we witness ex-CIA agent and assassin Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) having a confrontation with some Italian mobsters that are terrorizing patrons in restaurant.
Never mind the hows and the whys, just know that McCall is confronting mafia scum.
With a steely-eyed and poker-faced sternness, he politely asks the leader of the gang to leave, to which he replies, "You warning me?!" McCall dryly retorts, "I'm preparing you."
This thug has no idea whatsoever what kind of intense pain he's about to receive.
Let's just say that McCall grabs the goon and puts pressure on a particular nerve with a pain level of 3. If he goes to level 4 and above, then the mobster will probably defecate in his pants. How embarrassing for him.
Scenes like this are one of the primary reasons why I found the first two EQUALIZER films - both helmed by frequent Washington collaborator Antoine Fuqua, who's back for this latest entry - to be unpretentiously entertaining. They're essentially blunt force and no-nonsense engines to showcase the sixtysomething Washington employing increasingly novel and grisly ways to inflict pain and death on those that most assuredly had it coming to them. Even when the franchise churns up ample action thriller and spy film clichés, we still have the stalwart presence of Washington, who plays McCall with such intimidating levels of calmness and internalized rage. The Oscar winner doesn't play this role one note, though. There are levels of compelling nuance on display here, and seeing him softly warning heavily armed men (and half of his age) to back down (or else!) and then seeing said armed men being taken down several pegs never gets old. Washington is nearly 70, but you wouldn't know it by watching THE EQUALIZER 3. He's like a kid in a proverbial candy store and seems to be having fun.
Washington is undeniably in solid form in this second sequel, but despite his commitment to his role and solid direction from Fuqua (the pair have now worked together five times), THE EQUALIZER 3 is sadly the most pedestrian and disposable of the lot. That's not to say that the first and second entries were high art, but they worked well as slick and sadistic grindhouse revenge thrillers. THE EQUALIZER 3 does - to be fair - what good sequels should do by expanding upon the main character's arc and taking him to new surroundings, but the overreaching storytelling here is especially weak, predictable, and more than a bit messy. That, and this third film offers up cookie-cutter villains, some distracting subplots (more on that in a bit) and a climax that isn't anywhere near as suspenseful as it wants to be. Perhaps the biggest sin of THE EQUALIZER 3 is that it's serviceable, but a superfluous sequel and in no way shape or form feels like a series closer as heavily advertised.
To joggle your memories, the first film introduced us to McCall working a lowly Home Depot-style retial job, which served as a cover for the fact that he was once a dangerous government-trained killer that could murder anyone with relative ease. The finale of the film is still my favorite of the lot, seeing as the hardware store setting allowed for McCall to use all of the resources on its shelves to slice and dice his way through his adversaries. The last film (less interesting, but still well made and thrilling) had McCall working a day job as a Lyft driver (no, seriously) while facing off against a backstabbing agent that he once called a friend (that climax was all set during a wild hurricane in an abandoned town). Now comes THE EQUALIZER 3, which re-acquaints us with McCall in the film's terrifically realized opening sequence (which is, mournfully enough, the film's best that it can't top later). An Italian drug lord and his kid pull up in a jeep to a beautiful, but seemingly deserted villa. Beaten, battered and dismembered dead bodies are everywhere. The drug lord pulls out his pistol, tells his son to stay behind, and he proceeds inside the home, where he finds even more dead men. It looks like the work of an army, but as he goes deeper into the home he finds McCall being closely guarded by two men with guns. Upon meeting the drug lord, he gives them all nine seconds (exactly nine) before he kills them all. "Nine seconds. That's what I'll give you to decide your fate," he softly warns them.
Sorry, scratch that...he's preparing them.
Obviously, McCall is on the job and about to finish it for good, but just when he thinks he's home free, he's shot in the back with a stray bullet but the frightened child left outside. McCall makes it out alive, but ends up passing out in his vehicle just outside of the small village of Altomonte. Discovered by the town's do-gooder cop, Gio (Eugenio Mastrandrea), McCall is brought to the town doctor, Enzo (Remo Girone), who tends to his near fatal wounds. As McCall begins a long recuperation process, he starts to take in the sights and sounds of his new surroundings. He likes the people. He likes the town. Most importantly of all, he likes the peace and quiet. Unfortunately, he discovers that his quaint new home is under constant terror of the local mafia. Sickened by their treatment of his new friends, McCall takes it upon himself to end this mob family one by one. Concurrent to this is a subplot involving Agent Collins (hey, Washington's MAN ON FIRE co-star Dakota Fanning!) is given evidence by McCall that he uncovered at the aforementioned villa in the film's opener that could be life and career changing for her.
Let's talk about this long awaited reunion, of sorts, between Washington and Fanning. It's certainly a thrill to see them sharing scenes together and on equal footing as adults (the last time they did, she was a young child actor) after 19 years apart. Watching them play off of one another and engaging in verbal cat and mouse games is one of the highlights of THE EQUALIZER 3, but it also paradoxically serves as one of the film's most glaring problems. The whole subplot involving Agent Collins only pays off well in the film's closing sections, but well before that I was constantly asking myself why this character is even here in the first place. Fanning is a gifted actress and I liked her scenes with Washington, but if you look past that and begin to scrutinize her character's involvement in the larger story, it's easy to see how fairly unnecessary it is to the whole film. Eliminate Agent Collins and her quest to find the source of "jihad drugs" in Italy (being trafficked through the drug lord's winery that McCall infiltrated earlier) and THE EQUALIZER 3 wouldn't be on any lesser narrative ground. I think this is all a case of the makers trying to find a way of putting a square peg in a round hole. They seem so desperate to find a way to include a MAN OF FIRE reunion here that they forgot to inject it into the story credibly and organically. It only serves the purpose of distracting audiences' attention away from the real meat and potato elements of McCall's relationship with the residents of Altamonte and how he bolsters them up to defend against those deplorable mobsters.
That's another major issue with THE EQUALIZER 3: The villains this time are just so underwhelming. It's obvious that Fuqua and Washington are tapping into obvious - and frankly old and stale - Western genre conventions with the overall story. McCall is the mysterious outsider that a small town adopts, cares for, and eventually calls their own (without knowing anything about his past). Evil doers show up and violently upend the town. McCall recovers from his wounds and plans a counter-offensive with the town's help. This all builds to an unavoidable climatic showdown that has McCall picking off members of the mob family until he gets to the godfather himself. None of this is bad, per se, but it's kind of flavourless and uninspired. Plus, there's a genuine lack of tangible thrills in the latter sections because it becomes clear that these mobsters are simply no match for the cunning, determined, and dangerous AF McCall, who goes on a merciless assault on them without breaking much of a sweat. There are early attempts to make McCall more vulnerable in the early sections of THE EQUALIZER 3, but by the film's third act, he's an unstoppable and robotic killing machine. The previous two EQUALIZERS were hellishly violent, yes, but this one is almost pornographically gory in its savagery.