Anthony Fuqua has yet to make a truly scary film, but with “The Equalizer 3,” he’s come close. These action movies pit a relentless vigilante against his inventive, gruesome deaths, slashing through slashers who refuse to die. However, here, the killer is the hero, taking lives to save the innocent from torture and murder. His victims aren’t helpless maidens or co-ed sidekicks; instead, Denzel Washington’s Robert McCall takes on everyone from Russian gangsters and American mercenaries to Italian mobsters, using everything from corkscrews to his own guns.
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In each “Equalizer” film, Robert poses the question, “When you look at me, what do you see?” It’s a debate punctuated with stabbings, but there’s little moral ambiguity in this franchise. It presents Robert as a straightforward hero, and everyone else on screen falls decidedly into categories of good or bad, with no gray area in between. These movies offer little beyond considering what everyday object Robert will turn into a deadly weapon next, whether it’s a bottle of booze or a meat-cutting machine.
He only does bad things to bad people, or more accurately, he does bad things to bad men. In three films, six hours, and countless deaths, Robert has never once sought justice alongside a female character, which feels more than a little regressive. Women here are either victims of violence or damsels in distress, far from the kind of progressive stance Robert takes against the brutality of bad men. Complaining about gender representation in a movie that really only cares about brutal fight scenes would seem like a misplaced mental energy drain. However, Fuqua has consistently tried to elevate these films beyond just an action franchise, and he’s consistently failed.
Nevertheless, despite Fuqua’s attempts to make the “Equalizer” franchise more than just an action spectacle, these three films have defied his attempts to water down his style and focus on scene descriptions. The shots are thoughtfully composed, and he brings a welcoming sense of place, whether it’s the original film’s Boston (and a big-box hardware store showdown), the sequel’s finale set in a coastal Massachusetts town, or an Italian village in “The Equalizer 3.” Robert McCall and whoever he’s gotten his justified anger from are in a different setting in each action film, and we should probably be grateful for that level of craftsmanship that’s gone into these films, rather than what could happen when a random filmmaker simply rounds up all the goons and bullets they can find and lets them loose. Still, it feels like a waste when that style is paired with a script that hints at deeper meaning but ultimately misses the mark with its goals.
The Equalizer 3 never matches the talent Denzel Washington brings.
In “The Equalizer 3,” Denzel Washington’s performance never quite meets the potential of the talent brought to bear on “The Equalizer 3” and its predecessors. He clearly relishes this role, as it marks the first character he’s returned to in his decades-long career. Despite the dark humor of the carnage, Washington brings the same energy to this role as he has to the roles he’s recently been praised for, including “Fences” and “The Tragedy of Macbeth.” He offers a nuanced performance, filled with subtle touches accumulated over three films, such as the moments where you can see him mentally and physically bracing himself against the violence he’s about to unleash. These films may never reach his level, but Washington’s charisma makes them watchable, even when something dramatic on screen compels you to look away or when Richard Wenk’s foolish script forces your eyes to roll.
At least “The Equalizer 3’s” screenplay — credited to Richard Wenk and based on the 1980s TV series by Michael Sloan and Richard Lindheim — is an improvement over the tangled narrative of the 2018 sequel that barely made any sense. The opening scenes of this film find Washington’s Robert McCall dispatching a notorious criminal in Sicily. (The film will make it clear that Sicily is in Italy, establishing how little it thinks of its audience, who presumably have seen “The Godfather.”) But Robert, now known as Roberto, gets injured in the process and is taken by a local doctor (Remo Girone) to her nearby village. Robert settles into the small town, befriends its residents, and maybe, finally finds peace. But violence continues to haunt him, as a gangster named Camorra threatens his new neighbors. Robert wants to live a peaceful life, but when gangsters menace his new neighbors, he can’t stand idly by.
The Equalizer 3 is just more of the same.
As its name suggests, “The Equalizer 3” continues the familiar pattern without breaking new ground. “The Equalizer 3” is as much a hit as “The Equalizer” and “The Equalizer 2,” minus the presence of Robert’s reading glasses. It feels like he’s checked everything off his reading list and there are no more books left in the world, perhaps? In a landscape of underwhelming sequels, this one stands a step above the 2018 installment, which didn’t even try to be coherent. Everything here is a bit too clean-cut – except for all the bloodstains – and excessively on the nose thematically, much like Robert’s vigilant gaze at his regular cup of tea. I yelled a belated revelation, and it’s frustratingly literal for both clarity and sheer stupidity.