J. C. Chandor’s filmography has only been shifting in scale in some sense but maybe not always to the most consistent of results. His fourth feature, being his first one in five years since A Most Violent Year happens to be his most expensive project yet, sadly also happens to be his worst feature to date. With how much Margin Call and All is Lost have managed to accomplish with what little they had around them, and despite A Most Violent Year showing promise for Chandor to go for much bigger projects, it seems like the increasing scale may also have gotten the worst of him too. Triple Frontier if anything seems so much more like a film that’s overwhelmed by its incredible scale rather than one that is able to work properly within what’s been given to Chandor, but there’s almost no control over what it is that he wants to show us here – so much to the point it even makes its more dramatic moments feel as if they’re not even capable of carrying any weight.
If there’s anything to be said about Barry Jenkins, his track record is already setting himself up to become one of this generation’s best working filmmakers after his Academy Award-winning second film Moonlight, so how does he manage to follow up with his third film? Adapting the words of James Baldwin onto the screen shouldn’t seem like such an easy task for just about any writer-director, yet Barry Jenkins shows himself to be the perfect choice with relative ease. But as every small detail starts to come together in order to form what Barry Jenkins manages to bring to life in his own adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk, you already start to feel that this film was so clearly made out of love for the text of Baldwin. This is a romance story on the surface, but Jenkins also takes that template to make something more meditative, just as Baldwin’s own social critiques would have inspired from American society back in his time – for watching this film we only find his message is still alive. There’s no better way to put how fully realized an effort like this is, and for all I know it may very well be one of the decade’s most beautiful films.
The thing that immediately pops about The Equalizer 2 is how measured it is.
The sequel, which brings back Denzel Washington as Robert McCall as well as Antoine Fuqua at the helm and Richard Wenk on script, kicks off with a scene of McCall doing what the first film established he does best: murdering mooks that have done someone incredibly wrong, dispassionately and savagely. In this case, it’s men working for an abusive man who has kidnapped his daughter from his former wife and fled to his native country of Turkey. We don’t see what happens to the abuser, but McCall sits him down and gives him (and by extension us) a clue: “There are two types of pain in this world,” he says, “pain that hurts and pain that alters. Today, you get to choose.” I’m not entirely sure what that means, but it’s cold as shit and it apparently gets the job done; that’s all I need.
But then the movie slows down. For a shocking amount of time, the film becomes something more character-focused, feeling little pressure to hurry the viewer over to the next set piece. Instead, it wants to show you McCall in his default environment: working as a Lyft driver, nurturing the few bonds he has. They’re not friendships, really; he doesn’t open up to any of these people. But they open up to him, and he respects where they come from and what they fight for. So much of this movie just marinates in that little social network McCall’s caught up in, where his active support of the people surrounding him translates into passive nourishment for his soul, sustaining him, but never quite filling him. McCall’s still going through the hundred books to read before you die on behalf of his late wife—he’s on the last one, in fact, and predictably, he’s not very anxious to start. The one friend he has, CIA bigwig Susan (Melissa Leo), is telling him that maybe it’s time to move back into the old family home on the sea, and he gets it, but he’s still resistant. You could be forgiven for thinking this was an Oscar-bait melodrama at times, if not for the occasional explosions of violence that dot the first half as McCall quietly, expertly extricates these people from intense situations.
To be sure, there’s still a plot; it unfurls in the background in fits and starts, kicking off after a group of men execute a hit on a Belgian CIA asset and his wife. Fuqua chooses to lean into McCall’s routine, only committing his full attention to the big story after Susan is killed while investigating the hit.
It’s not accidental; it’s a statement. Fuqua’s drawing a parallel between the humanistic drive of the sociopathically violent McCall and the legitimate sociopathic behaviors of the people he’s up against. Through these parallels, he riffs on ideas both political and personal; the film’s villains, assassins for hire through the private sector, argue that they were forced to become villainous through the machinations of the military industrial complex and that what they do for the highest bidder isn’t much different from what the government told them to do. It’s not hard to see his point, but through Fuqua’s lens, it’s still not a sympathetic one, because he spent the last hour setting up the difference between clear-eyed violence to protect your community and willfully ignorant violence for Your Given Cause.
Of course, “clear-eyed” is the key term here. McCall is neither repulsed by or lustful for the violence he visits on others. He finds it satisfying because of how he came up, allowing the movie a context to luxuriate in all the grisly ways he takes various bastards down. (Just like the first film, the final act of this one plays like a slasher, right down to the violent kills by an emotionless figure.) Yet McCall respects the abnormality of that satisfaction. He respects it enough to try and steer Miles (Ashton Sanders), a kid he falls into mentoring, away from that violence. Later, when one of the bad guys asks McCall if he (as in McCall himself) deserves death for what he did in the past, McCall says “A thousand times over” without hesitation. It’s essentially the old “We’re not so different” chestnut, answered with a markedly refreshing “No, we’re not. And?”
McCall is essentially ronin. He’s a man of extraordinary violence who, in the absence of a master, has chosen to give himself over to a nonspiritual yet deeply moralistic lifestyle. Because he has no higher calling, he doesn’t let himself care about the couple murdered at the beginning of the film; if it was a hit, it was ordered by someone, but the film has no interest in who it was. The crimes of the film’s villains amount strictly to murdering Susan because the ways they mirror McCall are part of the movie’s point. McCall puts it into words near the end of the second act: Their tragedy, so to speak, isn’t that they’re being punished for being evil; the world isn’t perfect, therefore it doesn’t work like that. Their tragedy is that they were supposed to operate with impunity, and by a freak coincidence ran into the one man who wouldn’t let them. Action movies are full of narratives like this (for starters, Die Hard) but the film makes sure to spell it out here because it’s key to understanding what it’s saying about its hero: He’s supposed to be the villain. He’s a tool of the powerful, whose personal pain has indirectly led him to work for the powerless. He can’t correct all the injustice of the world, nor will he try. But he can fight for the loose network that unwittingly supports him. And in chronicling how he does so, the film takes a stand in favor of community and empathy in a way that few action films ever do.
I have issues, to be sure. I wish the film could have made its point without wasting talents like Melissa Leo and Bill Pullman, and as effective as some of the character-based scenes are, I wish they weren’t borne from such hackneyed concepts. As curious as it can be, The Equalizer 2 is ultimately still junk cinema, and for those who like their action consistent, smooth, and inventive ala John Wick, it won’t go down that easy. But the patient will be rewarded with a clever character study that pairs surprisingly well with the righteous murder on display.
Watch the trailer here:
All images courtesy of Sony Pictures.
Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Screenplay by Richard Wenk
Based on the TV series created by Michael Sloan & Richard Lindheim
Produced by Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, Denzel Washington, Alex Siskin, Steve Tisch, Antoine Fuqua, Mace Neufeld, Tony Eldridge, Michael Sloan
Starring Denzel Washington, Pedro Pascal, Ashton Sanders, Bill Pullman, Melissa Leo
Release Year: 2018
Running Time: 121 minutes
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