Action movies are expressions of their stars’ preferred personas: Tom Cruise, the fanatical daredevil savior; Keanu Reeves, the cool, sleek agent of death; and Liam Neeson, the gruff, paternalistic avenger. The same holds true for Denzel Washington, who in The Equalizer gets to be a wise, caring mentor, a lone warrior, and a virtuous vigilante. He’s also the baddest man on the planet, refusing to turn the other cheek to injustice and righting wrongs with extreme prejudice. Loosely reimagining the ’80s TV series of the same name, the Equalizer films are vehicles designed to spotlight everything audiences love about Washington, from his graceful style and heartfelt empathy to his nonchalant charm and ferocious intensity.
All those traits remain in full effect in The Equalizer 3 (in theaters Sept. 1), the third and supposedly final chapter in a serviceable trilogy defined by its meat-and-potatoes carnage and its headliner’s exceptional charisma. Director Antoine Fuqua’s latest relocates Washington’s Robert McCall—a former Marine who most assume is dead—from Boston to Italy, where he’s introduced having already laid waste to a veritable army of bodyguards at a gated vineyard estate.
When the owner of that residence arrives, he’s naturally shaken by the bloody scene, and that’s before he discovers Robert sipping wine in a basement, totally confident and calm despite the two guns pointed at his head. Per his countdown-via-stopwatch modus operandi, Robert gives his adversaries nine seconds to surrender. When they don’t comply, he demonstrates his imposing skills. Upon leaving, though, he suffers a careless injury and barely makes it back to the mainland, where he’s fortuitously discovered by a cop named Gio (Eugenio Mastrandrea) and taken to a local village doctor named Enzo (Remo Girone).
The Amalfi Coast may be foreign to Robert but The Equalizer 3 treads familiar ground, both in terms of its franchise precursors and the many genre ancestors upon whose shoulders it stands. Given that these films have always been high-gloss B-movies, however, a lack of originality is hardly a death knell. In fact, playing by old-school rules means that little time is wasted on superfluous exposition and primary focus is maintained on Washington. There’s a crime conspiracy afoot in this overseas saga, yet its specifics are at once simplistic and difficult to parse and, moreover, they don’t matter. All that counts here is the sight of Washington suffering under the weight of his sins, struggling to squash his homicidal impulses, and inevitably falling off the murderous wagon and offing a host of cretins who get what’s coming to them.
There’s no way to spoil an endeavor like The Equalizer 3 because the promise it makes audiences—come see Denzel slay scoundrels as a veritable Grim Reaper with a conscience!—is bound to be fulfilled. Courtesy of Enzo, Robert delays his trip to the hereafter and nurses himself back to health, limping, walking and eventually running up the many stairs that pepper this mountainous region. He’s convinced to buy a snazzy hat and finds a nice café where he orders tea that he places on carefully laid-out napkins (because he’s “neat”) and meets a waitress (Gaia Scodellaro) who makes him dinner, if never initiates a true May-December romance. He additionally takes note of gangsters, led by Marco (Andrea Dodero), harassing fishmonger Angelo (Daniele Perrone)—and is noticed by them as well.
This encounter is Robert’s introduction to Camorra, aka the mafia, which according to Enzo runs this town and many others like it. While he’s removed his stopwatch and begun attending church—both signs that he wants to leave the past behind and atone for his prior violent deeds—Robert detests nothing more than evil men preying on the innocent. This invariably puts him in conflict with Marco and his big brother Vincent (Andrea Scarduzio), an ambitious wannabe-Godfather who plans to take over the region and whose penchant for viciousness almost exceeds Robert’s, as evidenced by a meeting with an arrogant police chief. In this and many other scenes, Fuqua lingers on gruesome brutality and its aftermath, his camera panning toward—and gazing with fascination at—severed, sliced, smashed and exploded body parts. It’s R-rated excess designed to elicit grim thrills and chills, although better are the director’s clean, sturdy widescreen compositions and the material’s patient, precise pace.
Robert may have thought he was out but these criminals keep pulling him back in. If The Equalizer 3 weren’t formulaic enough, it pairs Washington with his Man on Fire partner Dakota Fanning as the CIA agent that Robert tips off about the vineyard slaughter. Fanning exhibits some steely resolve of her own and her reunion with Washington gives the proceedings a modest added-value jolt. Still, their dynamic mostly serves to underscore Robert’s preternatural ahead-of-the-game control over any and every situation, be it a night out at a restaurant that’s interrupted by the arrival of uninvited guests, or a climactic siege on a fortified mansion that—in light of the action’s general grisliness—proves rather tame and anticlimactic.
The main attraction in The Equalizer 3 is Washington, who once again works hard to imbue his hero with depth. That’s not a wholly successful undertaking considering that Robert is, at heart, the type of methodical killer-with-a-code that’s been a cinematic staple since at least Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 masterpiece Le Samouraï. Nonetheless, there are less entertaining things one can witness than the sight of the Oscar winner decapitating villains and shooting through one dead adversary’s head in order to kill another.
Washington broods (oh the tortured guilt!) and laughs (oh the redemptive Italian air!) and struts about with unflappable self-assurance, and his magnetism is so forceful that the pose rings true. It’s far from the most nuanced or compelling performance of his career, but it’s proof that few contemporary actors can light up a screen the way he does, regardless of the project at hand.
The Equalizer 3 briefly shouts out to the franchise’s preceding two entries (including via a late “twist”), and yet Fuqua’s film is basically a stand-alone affair, as self-contained as any episode of the television show upon which it’s based. It’s also as efficient and straightforward as that predecessor, if not quite as disposable, thanks to its peerless star.
Liked this review? Sign up to get our weekly See Skip newsletter every Tuesday and find out what new shows and movies are worth watching, and which aren’t.