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Denzel strikes back - ‘The Equalizer 2’

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In today’s franchise-driven cinematic climate, the focus has shifted from performer to property. The notion of a “movie star” – at least in the way we’ve traditionally considered the term – is becoming increasingly anachronistic. But they’re not all gone yet. There are a few who can still legitimately bear the mantle of movie star.

Denzel Washington is one of the few. His latest is “The Equalizer 2,” which sees him reteaming with director Antoine Fuqua for a sequel to their 2014 old-guy-action extravaganza. It’s Denzel’s first sequel, which is surprising. What isn’t surprising is that it doesn’t live up to the pulpy thrills of the original, falling prey to the law of diminishing returns. Still, it’s Denzel, so while the movie might not be great, it’s extremely watchable thanks to the inescapable charismatic magnetism of its star.

Denzel is back as Robert McCall, former soldier/CIA agent/covert badass. He’s living in Boston and working as a Lyft driver while pursuing his unique brand of justice on the side, helping random people in whatever ways only his particular skill set can. Everyone he knew in his old life believes him dead except for his former CIA colleague Susan (Melissa Leo, TV’s “I’m Dying Up Here”) and her husband Brian (Bill Pullman, “Battle of the Sexes”).

He’s also helping in non-punching ways. He quietly goes about trying to improve the situation surrounding his apartment building; in particular, he becomes a mentor of sorts to a talented young artist named Miles (Ashton Sanders, “Dead Women Walking”), trying to steer him away from negative influences. McCall also serves as a confidant to one of his Lyft regulars; Sam Rubenstein (Orson Bean, “Wake Up America!”) is on a quest to prove provenance of a famed painting that he claims is a portrait of his long-lost sister.

But McCall’s relatively idyllic life takes a turn when an investigation into a killing in Brussels turns deadly for the good guys. He’s forced to come out of hiding and reveal himself to his old partner, an agent named Dave York (Pedro Pascal, “Prospect”). It soon becomes clear that there’s a lot more to the situation than meets the eye, leaving McCall with no idea who he can trust. If he’s going to exact his revenge – and stay alive in the process – he’s going to have to bring all of his abilities to bear. The storm is coming.

“The Equalizer 2” suffers from the same sorts of issues that most action sequels do. There’s not a lot of depth to the narrative (though the original wasn’t particularly robust plot-wise). The novelty of Denzel going the full Neeson was worn off to a degree (though it’s still awesome to watch Denzel fight the crap out of a bunch of dudes). The stakes feel inconsistent and the character motivations don’t always make a ton of sense.

And yet … it’s still pretty fun. That’s what happens when you cast a movie star.

Here’s the thing about Denzel – he’s probably the most traditionally talented guy on the A-list. Movie stardom and acting talent don’t necessarily go hand in hand; in fact, most of the ones who achieve the former aren’t any great shakes when it comes to the latter. Denzel is different. He’s a legitimately great actor who happens to be able to generate movie star wattage.

That’s the reason why “The Equalizer 2” works as well as it does despite its flaws. Denzel has the ability to elevate a film through both the quality of his performance AND the shine of his stardom. That combination – along with the productive comfort of his collaborative relationship with director Fuqua – allows for a fairly weak script to engage far more than it has any right to. Seriously – there’s no one else out there who could have made this movie work as well as Denzel does.

Fuqua does good work with the action sequences; the fight scenes unfold deliberately, but are punctuated by bursts of frantic kineticism. There’s little in way of wasted motion, which serves to underscore Denzel’s characterization nicely. I will note, however, that I actually could have done with a bit more equalizing – a few more of those action-oriented moments would have been a welcome addition.

Leo is a wonderful talent who continues to be underutilized; it’s nice to see her here, but it’s difficult not to wish she’d had just a little bit more to do. Pascal has some solid low-key moments, finding ways to share the screen with Denzel without getting lost. Sanders and Bean both do some very good work on the margins of the film, though the truth is that neither is especially vital to the proceedings. All in all, some solid supporting work from the ensemble.

“The Equalizer 2” doesn’t live up to the promise of its predecessor, but that’s to be expected. While it is a flawed film, the presence and commitment of Denzel ensures that it will engage and entertain. The truth is that a Denzel movie is like pizza – even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.

“The Equalizer 2” is pretty good.

[3.5 out of 5]

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