Rating: 2 stars
It’s purely unintentional, but the little numeral dangling, like a broken, mangled finger, from the end of the title of “The Equalizer 2” signals more than the fact that this is a sequel to the 2014 action thriller about a violent vigilante. It also lets you know that there are two, and only two, pleasures to be had here.
The first — Denzel Washington in the title role as an ex-military man and former black ops agent who, in his 60s, leverages his still-sharp martial-arts skills and strict moral code as an avenging angel for the mistreated — is not inconsiderable. Even in mediocre material, Washington shines. (Case in point: “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” for which the actor, but not the film, earned an Oscar nod.)
As Robert McCall, a secretive, bookish widower who works as a Boston-area Lyft driver while moonlighting as a one-man judge, jury and — if necessary — executioner, Washington is never less than watchable, especially when his stoic, slightly scary demeanor suddenly breaks, cracking open into an incandescent smile or hearty laugh. It’s fun to watch an AARP-ready action hero, like Liam Neeson has become.
The second pleasure is more of an acquired taste.
The first film culminated in McCall methodically killing an array of bad guys using tools from the home-improvement store where he worked, as a cover job, at the time. Taking place among the store aisles, drenched in an artful, artificial downpour produced by the sprinkler system, the climactic scene tickled a certain pleasure center of the reptile brain: one that delights in watching the wicked receive their just deserts.
Similarly, “Equalizer 2” moves inexorably toward a viscerally gratifying crescendo of violent revenge. Once again, it’s precipitated by an act of brutality against a woman, played here by Melissa Leo, reprising her role as McCall’s longtime friend and former work colleague at an unnamed intelligence agency. The formula isn’t complicated or particularly intelligent, but it gets the job done — if you allow it to. Here, the third act takes place as a hurricane is bearing down on a Massachusetts beachside town that has been evacuated by the police.
Hey, if it worked once . . .
A subplot involves McCall’s mentorship of an artistically talented high school student (Ashton Sanders), whom McCall is trying to keep on the straight and narrow. That our hero — part surrogate father, part bodyguard — introduces his young protege to such books as Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me,” while lecturing him about empowerment and personal responsibility, lends what might otherwise be a “Death Wish” or “Punisher” knockoff a patina of enlightenment.
It is, needless to say, thin gruel. Not to mention entirely beside the point.
McCall, for all his high-minded talk, seems to take a little too much sick glee in all the bloodletting he engages in. When he announces to his intended victims that he’s “going to kill each and every one of you,” his motivation sounds as much like sadism as social consciousness. “The only disappointment,” McCall tells them, “is that I only get to do it once.”
For our part, that disappointment is short-lived. All we have to do is wait for “The Equalizer 3.”
R. At area theaters. Contains brutal violence throughout, crude language and some drug use. 125 minutes.