‘The Equalizer 3’ review: Denzel Washington returns, but why?

Antoine Fuqua has yet to make a horror film, but The Equalizer 3 brings this violent trilogy to a horrifying close. These action films rival slashers in terms of imaginative, brutal killings at the hands of a ruthless killer who refuses to die.

However, in this case, the killer is the hero rather than the villain, and he slaughters to protect innocent people from exploitation and murder. Denzel Washington’s Robert McCall kills Russian mobsters, American mercenaries, and the Italian mafia using everything from a corkscrew to their own weaponry.

The question Robert poses in each Equalizer film — “What do you see when you look at me?” — hints at a discussion, yet this franchise contains little moral ambiguity. The series portrays Robert as a decent man, and everyone else on screen is either good or bad, with no between ground. These films offer little to think about other than betting on whatever everyday object Robert would transform into a lethal weapon next, such as a wine bottle or a meat cleaver.

He simply does horrible things to bad people, or, more specifically, to bad men. Over the course of three films, six hours, and innumerable deaths, Robert never gives respect to a single female character, which feels more than a bit dated. Women exist here to be murder victims or damsels in distress with little agency, seemingly incapable of the type of horrible behavior Robert opposes in this society of wicked and good men.

Complaining about gender representation in a film that is primarily concerned with horrific action scenes appears to be a waste of mental energy. However, Fuqua has constantly failed to elevate these films above the status of an action series.

Nonetheless, even three films into a morally basic franchise, Fuqua refuses to compromise his approach, bringing his gritty style and attention to visual elements to each scene. The shots are meticulously planned, and he provides a pleasant feeling of location, whether it’s Boston in the original film (and its climax in a large box hardware store), a coastal Massachusetts hamlet in the sequel’s finale, or an Italian village in The Equalizer 3. Each scenario is distinct, rather than simply existing as a faceless, featureless location that will become collateral damage in the struggle between Robert McCall and whatever has earned his righteous indignation this time.

We should definitely be grateful for action films done with this level of directorial artistry, as opposed to what can happen when a random filmmaker merely captures all of the punches and gunfire in frame and calls it quits. However, it appears to be a waste when that style is combined with a narrative that hints at greater significance but ultimately fails to hit the mark.

Washington’s acting, together with Fuqua’s direction, has repeatedly pushed The Equalizer 3 and its predecessors closer to their ambitious objectives of being more than merely shoot-’em-ups. He clearly appreciates the position, as it is the first one he has returned to in his decades-long career. Despite the absurd carnage, Washington invests as much energy to this role as he has to recent successes, such as Fences and The Tragedy of Macbeth. He delivers a nuanced portrayal, full of beautiful small nuances that have collected over the course of the three films, such as the moments when you can see him mentally and physically change from warning about the violence he’s about to inflict to taking action. These films are never on his level, but Washington makes them entertaining with his unflappable charisma, even when the gore tempts you to look away or the ludicrous screenplays by Richard Wenk make you roll your eyes.

At the very least, the narrative for The Equalizer 3 — written by Richard Wenk and based on Michael Sloan and Richard Lindheim’s 1980s TV series — is significantly superior to the previous film in the series, which made no attempt to be intelligible. In the film’s opening scene, Washington’s Robert McCall brings down a notorious gangster in Sicily. (The film makes it clear in its initial frames that Sicily is in Italy, demonstrating how little it cares about its audience, which has watched at least The Godfather, for goodness sake. However, Robert — who now goes by Roberto, grazie — is hurt in the process, and a doctor (Remo Girone) in nearby Altomonte takes him in. Robert recovers in the little community, befriending the inhabitants and possibly finding serenity. But violence afflicts them as the Camorra exploits its inhabitants for money. Robert wishes for a more peaceful life, but he cannot stand by as gangsters attack his new neighbors.

The Equalizer 3 follows the same beats as The Equalizer and The Equalizer 2. (Apart from Robert’s lack of enthusiasm for reading this time around. I suppose because he exhausted his reading list and there are simply no more books left in the world?) The distinction between what constitutes a callback and what merely demonstrates a lack of imagination is blurred. It’s a step improvement over the disjointed plot of the 2018 sequel, but this film goes too far the opposite way. Everything here is a touch too tidy — except from the blood splatters — and excruciatingly meaningful, much like Robert’s careful approach to his daily cup of tea. I groaned at a late disclosure, both for its obviousness and pure stupidity.

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