The Equalizer 2 Is More Than Just Another Vigilante Movie

I almost skipped the second installment of The Equalizer movie franchise, but, fortunately, Denzel Washington’s strong performance as vigilante Robert McCall in the first movie was a draw. Fortunately, The Equalizer 2 turned out to be as good, perhaps better, than the first one. Along the way, audiences will gain a much greater appreciation for the life of taxi drivers.

As a character, Robert McCall is an example of what thriller novelist Gregg Hurwitz might call “positive masculinity”–a man who is fundamentally good, courageous, and takes risks to achieve their objectives. I would add they also accept and embrace the consequences of their actions. The result is a complex and strong character that elevates The Equalizer 2 to be much more than just another vigilante movie.

In the franchise, Robert McCall, a retired special forces and CIA operative, hasn’t been able to cope with his wife’s death. He is off the grid, and everyone except a few people believes he is dead. Instead, he uses his “retirement” to right wrongs and re-balance the scales of justice–hence the term “equalizer”–as a clandestine vigilante operative. In the first movie, he battled Russian gangsters. In the second movie, McCall squares off against deep-seated government corruption (or, according to John Nolte in his review, the Deep State).

McCall lives in Boston and works as a driver for Lyft, the ride-sharing company that is giving Uber a run for its money and market-share. The company is a perfect cover. McCall works on his own time and schedule, can track his customers (who can also track him), and uses his own nondescript car. Most of his riders are simply trying their best to navigate life, from the young soldier shipping off for his first tour in a combat zone to the teenager who was just accepted to her top college, to the Holocaust survivor trying to find his lost sister. These scenes, however, are skillfully used to humanize McCall’s character, attitudes toward justice, demonstrate his unique “skill set,” and dramatically show which events will trigger his vigilante interventions.

The story begins to shift into high gear when McCall’s inside contact at the CIA, Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo, Snowden, The Big Short, The Fighter), is murdered in Brussels, Belgium during her investigation into a brutal dual murder involving a CIA informant. The lack of progress by Belgian police into Plummer’s death leads McCall to conduct his own investigations. These efforts bring him back into the orbit of former members of his special operations squad, including his former CIA partner Dave York (Pedro Pascal, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, The Great Wall, Game of Thrones).

As in most vigilante stories, a strong individualist streak runs through the plot line. Operating outside social norms and the law, the characters have to make decisions over life and death. McCall’s vigilantism, however, is tempered. He doesn’t carry an infallible self-righteousness. He is always aware he can make a mistake, or make the wrong decision. Thus, McCall is ever focused on making sure he is seeking justice for the right people and exacting reparations (or retribution) from the right people.

A signature feature of McCall’s vigilante conduct code (rooted in a promise to his dead wife) requires him to give every guilty party an “out,” an opportunity to do the right thing. These decisions are framed as a choice–own up to the heinous acts you have committed by admitting to your crimes, or selfishly (or self-righteously) ignore the harm and continue without remorse. Interestingly, McCall frames the choice as one where consequences are felt either way, but death is inevitable if they choose to continue as usual.

By framing the vigilantism in this way, the movie has a distinctly libertarian theme: McCall, working covertly, takes matters of balancing justice into his own hands. McCall accepts the responsibility for acting as a personal agent of social justice as well as the consequences of the decisions he makes. At the same time, those subject to his judgment about justice can’t escape the consequences of their choices, whether they can be convicted of a crime or not.

Of course, as an action thriller, most of the bad guys make the wrong choice and most end up dead or permanently crippled. But the punishments are meted out in proportion to culpability and aggression. The scales are, in fact, balanced, not left tilted the other way. Denzel Washington fully embraces McCall’s character, allowing director Antoine Fuqua (The Equalizer, Training Day, Magnificent 7) to take full advantage of the light dialogue and the character’s reserved personality to keep audiences sympathetic and engaged throughout. Strong acting from the supporting cast, including Bill Pullman (Independence Day, The Equalizer) as Plummer’s husband, and Ashton Sanders (Moonlight) as Miles Whittaker, an aspiring artist at risk to joining a street gang, and Sakina Jaffrey (Red Sparrow, House of Cards, The Mindy Project) as McCall’s neighbor fill out a solid, well scripted, and well executed film.

To the credit of the producers and writers, The Equalizer 2 is not a simple add-on to the franchise. The movie has the pace, structure, and depth of an independent film and story. While The Equalizer 2 is not as fast paced as other movies in its genre, the screenplay by Richard Wenk (The Equalizer) and directing by Fuqua build a foundation that allows the movie to rev up to its dramatic climax. The Equalizer 2 earns its R rating. The death and destruction of human life are graphic but not gratuitous. Nevertheless, a well-structured story, top-notch filmmaking, and the story’s attention to character-defining choices combine to make Equalizer 2 a satisfying addition to the thriller crime genre.

Other movies reviewed on The Beacon that address government corruption, vigilantism and justice include:

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Samuel R. Staley is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Managing Director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center in the College of Social Sciences at Florida State University. He is a contributing author to the Independent books, Property Rights: Eminent Domain and Regulatory Takings Re-Examined and Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis.

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