Man on Fire introduced audiences to a version of Denzel Washington unseen before 2004. As former CIA operative John Creasy, Washington set the screen ablaze in his quest for vengeance, setting the stage for Washington’s turn as Robert McCall, The Equalizer. Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) updated the television show’s premise with a grittier tone and stylistic violence that is expected from today’s vigilante films. The result was a surprise hit, doing well with audiences and critics.
The second Equalizer marked the first time Washington made a sequel in his storied career. Given how many times he could’ve made a sequel but didn’t, this suggested a worthy story brought him back to the table. It was…not as well-received as the first, plagued by a problem many films in the action genre face: making aging leads invincible. Washington can sell a lot — he’s one of the greatest actors of all time — but if you have to replace him with a stunt double so obviously that the audience can tell the difference, maybe rework the scene.
With The Equalizer 3, it is obvious Fuqua and Washington are tweaking a few things to restore the series. Washington is shorn again, rocking the bald look that sets this character apart from other action films he has done. Now set in the Mediterranean, the venue adds a flavor that Boston didn’t necessarily provide the second time out. Fuqua has more to work with as he shines in his fight choreography, shooting against the beautiful vistas of Italy instead of muted U.S. cityscapes. Robert Richardson serves as cinematographer and he makes the bold reds and dark shadows sing.
Living in the small Italian village of Altomonte, Robert McCall finally feels at peace after the events of previous Equalizer films. He lives with town doctor Enzo (Remo Girone) and takes in the local flavor, sipping espressos at the cafe and chatting up locals like Aminah (Gaia Scodellaro). Watching McCall cook, shop, and live as a tourist is satisfying in its own right, but we know it won’t last. Though outwardly pleasant, McCall spots a community under duress. Marco (Andrea Quaranta) is a hothead who moves through Altomonte beating up locals, destroying shops, and laying the groundwork for his older brother, Vincent (Andrea Scarduzio), to establish casinos and hotels. McCall doesn’t like the mafia leaning heavily on his newfound friends and, well, we all know what happens next.
An action film is only as good as its villain, and, unfortunately, Equalizer 3 is lacking. Martin Csokas’ Teddy made an indelible impression on audiences in 2014 and Pedro Pascal‘s turncoat proved up to the task of challenging McCall in 2018. And yet, the antagonists here don’t pose a legitimate threat, sapping the film of any doubt McCall will prevail. However, what the film lacks in suspense, it makes up for in gore. Fuqua leans into the R rating, giving Washington inventive methods of taking out the trash. The film implies McCall will feel guilty about his duties after the killing’s over, but the camera revels in it. What in McCall’s past causes him grief, but not enough to stop killing? The movie’s answer is a shrug, but they keep going back to the well.
As a former Marine and DIA agent, it’s obvious there are skeletons in McCall’s closet, yet he still acts as an avenger in his autumn years. Why? What is he atoning for? Not all backstories have to be shown onscreen, but the choice could make Washington’s performance feel more realized. Not that Washington needs any assistance in owning the part – even in paycheck roles (this is one of them), Washington delivers the goods. He’s effortlessly charming in scenes that require grace and is the calm eye of the storm when the moment calls for justice. McCall’s emotional indifference and efficiency in dispatching criminals is remarkable for how controlled the action is.
Most intriguing in this third entry in the reunion between Washington and actress Dakota Fanning. In a pleasant surprise, it came in an Equalizer sequel as opposed to the improbable Man on Fire sequel. Fanning plays CIA financial analyst Emma Collins, whom McCall tips off about the mob’s activities. After almost 20 years, Washington and Fanning still have the same great rapport. In another film, Collins would be an A-list cameo who jets off after a monologue, but the relationship between Washington and Fanning breathes life into the film. It’s just a shame that the screen time they share is limited.
If Washington and Fuqua felt that Equalizer 2 didn’t meet their standards, Equalizer 3 makes up for that disappointment. Assuming this is the last ride for the Equalizer series, they went out on top, and there couldn’t be a better time for it at the theatre. With the Hollywood strikes rolling well into fall and winter, this might be the last chance to see an A-list actor until Killers of the Flower Moon.
The Equalizer 3 is now playing in theaters everywhere, courtesy of Sony Pictures.