Friday, July 19, 2024

‘Equalizer II’ Is Moody but Pulpy Fun

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I loved every exploitive and blood dripping minute of Antoine Fuqua’s Equalizer II. Fuqua should be given great credit for refraining from giving us an unnecessary subtitle. Instead, he cuts to the chase and delivers exactly what is promised. Washington is back as ex-CIA agent Frank McCall and we’re reminded of his presence and charisma as he struts across the screen.

Vigilante movies are a sub-genre unto themselves. Usually involving a grizzled older man with a certain set of skills. He is a man who will bring a maelstrom of violence in the name of justice, old friends, or murdered family members. It is a genre made up entirely of men; white men, with more than a vague hint of racism bubbling beneath the service.

Usually, the vigilante is facing an ‘urban menace,’ code for black or brown gangs. Sometimes they face international ‘traffickers,’ code for middle eastern terrorists. The underlying conceit being the death of non-white bodies by white hands. In the interest of good faith, I’m willing to believe this more just conditioned rather than intentional. Fuqua’s decision to retool the classic 80’s television series with one of the most prominent and successful movie stars, who also happens to be black, is a conscious one.

McCall isn’t like the other vigilantes. Oh, sure he has a ‘special set’ of skills. But most vigilantes, much like modern comic book heros, have a mission or a goal. McCall is much more of a Jack Reacher character. Sure, the story has him on a mission but he is keenly aware of the injustice around him and aims to level the playing field. Not to mention McCall realizes not every situation requires violence.

Not content to brood in his small Boston apartment, he spends his time as a Lyft driver. One of his regulars is an elderly Jewish man named Sam (Orson Bean), a Holocaust survivor. Sam laments to McCall about how he and his sister were separated and sent to two different concentration camps. He has seen an old painting of his sister, which used to hang in their apartment, in a museum. The courts seem unmoved with his paltry evidence.

Fuqua and his screenwriter Richard Wenk, populate Boston with a sea of color normally lacking in cinematic depictions of the great city. McCall’s apartment complex is filled with people like Fatima (Sakina Jaffrey), a woman who plants a garden in the walkway of the complex. A young man named Miles (Ashton Sanders), a promising young artist. McCall takes Miles under his wing to help keep him from joining the local gang.

Washington is and has always been magnetic, even in the farcical camp cyberpunk police procedural Virtuosity. But here his McCall is a man, not one struggling to connect with his community, but one who is deeply connected to it. The grief of his long dead wife still haunts him. But in a reversal of the grieving husband trope, he has moved from a small seaside village to the thriving metropolis of Boston.

McCall’s past is his past, with the exception of his old boss, Susan (Melissa Leo). She shows up on his wife’s birthday as a friend and counselor. Leo and Washington have a natural rapport as they ease into a comfortable rhythm like old friends over a bowl of soup. She’s happy to see that though Frank is technically dead, he does not seem to be acting as if he is.

One of his passengers is a drugged woman dumped into the back seat of his car. The man dumping her tells McCall to get her home safely. The ensuing scene is filled with the stuff of what makes the Equalizer movies so selfishly satisfying. McCall doesn’t do this because his wife is dead, or because something happened to his friends. Though he will bring down judgment and vengeance on those things, have no doubt.

Washington’s McCall has a moral compass. Someone has done a bad thing. They have hurt someone for no reason. They are powerful enough to escape judgment. But they are not powerful enough to escape McCall.

Wenk and Fuqua somehow never let the side missions McCall finds himself on interfere with the overarching main story. While in Brussels investigating the apparent murder/suicide of one of her operatives, Susan is murdered. McCall, of course, will bring his judgment to bear on any and all who are responsible.

The first Equalizer ended in a no holds barred free for all with McCall trapping the bad guys inside a Home Depot with him. Fuqua and Wenk outdo themselves by allowing Equalizer II reach almost operatic proportions. Susan’s murder uncovers a betrayal and a perversion of everything McCall believes he stands for.

His old partner Dave, clean shave Pedro Pascal, attempts to help McCall uncover what really happened in Brussels. Fuqua and Wenk up the ante from a Home Depot lock-in to a full-scale shootout in the middle of a hurricane crashing against McCall’s evacuated hometown. As a side note, if you are one of those people demanding logic from their movie then you may want to skip Equalizer II.

I, on the other hand, know full well, that it is impossible for McCall to have lined the outside of a house with pictures of Susan. I just couldn’t care less. Just hearing a bad guy call over the walkie about how absurd it is hunting a man during a hurricane and commenting on the pictures as if they were ghosts gave me a smile of unrepentant joy.

Fuqua is aided by the camera work of the infamous Oliver Wood. Wood has shot such films as Die Hard 2, Face/Off, and the Bourne films. He infuses a contemplative, tense mood to McCall’s world. Yes, we still get moments of McCall setting his watch and timing how long it takes him to take out an entire room of bad guys. We still get to see McCall planning out the attack moments before it happens. Wood utilizes a mixture of close-ups and wide shots to help give the feeling of a punch.

The climactic shootout is breathless and beautiful. I’m a sucker for action in extreme weather and it’s so rarely done well I’m left wanting. Wood does not disappoint as he allows the hurricane itself to be almost another character. A sort of neutral observer to McCall’s settling of a final score.

Still, Equalizer II doesn’t need to be as long as it is. I remember feeling as if the film was dragging at times. But I can’t for the life of me remember what scenes in particular dragged. I do remember McCall walking out of a room littered with the bodies of coked up high powered rich white boys demanding a five-star rating. To be fair the man had earned it by that point.

If they were to tell me that an Equalizer III was on its way I would not be disappointed. Old men killing people is an ageless genre. Though I wouldn’t mind seeing a gender reversal of the role. Maybe even, god forbid, have her not be white. Sadly that sounds almost as implausible as a shootout during a category three hurricane.

Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures

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