In his multiple decades as a movie star, Denzel Washington avoided franchises and balanced prestige work with the occasional action picture. Much like other older stars, the choice to become an “old man action hero” was compelling enough because such a terrific star was at the center. As a result, 2014’s The Equalizer was a big enough hit to lead to Washington’s first sequel, 2018’s The Equalizer 2. I wasn’t fond of the first, but the sequel was a miserable experience, sitting as one of Washington’s career-worst films. So now we have The Equalizer 3, and I’ll say this – it’s a step up. Perhaps that’s faint praise, and while I still wouldn’t necessarily say I enjoyed this final installment, I can at least say it’s the best of the three.
This time around, Washington’s Robert McCall begins the film in Sicily. We literally open on the aftermath of a bloody battle and McCall finishing off those who remain with the precision accuracy he’s shown multiple times over in previous films (and yes, it’s still very violent). However, a chance encounter leads to an injury, forcing McCall to recover in a small seaside town in Southern Italy. Unfortunately, this film did not feature sea creatures from Luca befriending the retired DIA officer. Instead, we have McCall taking on the Sicilian Mafia, who act like the grasshoppers to the helpless ants in this town trying to live peaceful lives.
It’s all trite in its setup, yet it’s hard not to be compelled by everything Washington does here. That’s pure star charisma at this point, perhaps amplified by him being more of a fish out of water than the Boston setting of the previous films. The fact that McCall must spend a bit of time healing allows the film to take things a bit slower for a few stretches and let the setting do its work. Whether it’s McCall’s interactions with the town’s favorite doctor, Enzo (Remo Girone), or how he gradually increases his intimidation tactics on the Mafia, something brewing holds the audience between the brutal action sequences.
And yes, things get pretty grisly for people who get in McCall’s way. That partially comes from the other side of the plot, as things can’t ever be too simple, much like the TV series that inspired this film franchise. You see, McCall has uncovered a drug/terrorist operation that brings on more violent characters. To aid in all this, McCall sends an anonymous call to DIA agent Emma Collins (Dakota Fanning), allowing for a side plot of investigation to help close the walls around a powerful Mafioso.
The gimmick here is, of course, seeing the Man on Fire stars together again (though any claim that this feels like an unofficial sequel is nonsense for any number of reasons). Fortunately, Washington and Fanning have a fun chemistry, allowing for another break in the tension. With that in mind, the dynamic here is no different than with anyone McCall interacts with, as the character is always the smartest, fastest, and deadliest person in the room.
Under a different light, one could easily stack McCall up against any of the best slasher movie villains. The way he invades spaces stealthily, murders one person after another, and even makes an elaborate presentation out of it suggests he is a horror movie villain for the ages. And yes, under the circumstances of these films, we are supposed to be rooting for McCall to get the better of these bad guys, and in the most severely violent ways possible. I have no reason to question the morality of this because these movies don’t present enough to get that attached to or take all that seriously. Instead, we have scenes where McCall is never in danger, as the film basically goes out of its way to tell us that each fight has ended with another victory for him before it even started. So, as it stands, I’m more concerned about what the general takeaway is supposed to be.
Director Antoine Fuqua returns once again, seemingly recharged in how to present this kind of movie. Not hurting is having the great cinematographer Robert Richardson shooting the film. Yes, a movie set in Southern Italy could look good by default. Still, there is an effective atmosphere on display, and the way this film charges up through visuals and music to indicate the sudden shifts in McCall’s intentions at least allows for the pulpiness of it all to feel more fitting.
But back to the question of what to get out of all this. Honestly? Three entries in, and it seems clear these visceral vigilante action films have no intention of offering any more than what’s advertised. Washington can put a nice face on it all, but these are shallow exercises in what movie stardom and style can get away with. I don’t get much out of it, as Washington has done plenty of other stellar genre films that don’t feel nearly as lazy, but I can see the appeal. Fortunately, this entry at least feels more agreeably forgettable. That may not be saying much, but as much as time has been on McCall’s side, it seems to be for me as well this time around.