‘The Equalizer 2’ is More of the Same, and That’s Just Fine With Me

The Equalizer 2 movie poster

It’s amazing how Denzel Washington has gone through his career without ever having made a sequel. Then again, do many of his films cry out for one? “Glory” and “Training Day,” didn’t leave much room for follow-ups as the characters he played met a very violent end. Last I checked, William Shakespeare never penned a sequel to “Much Ado About Nothing.” “The Pelican Brief,” “Philadelphia,” “Courage Under Fire” and “Crimson Tide” tell self-contained stories which are perfectly resolved at their conclusions. “Unstoppable” came to a full stop at the end to where a continuation would have insultingly involved another runaway train. As for “Remember the Titans,” we still remember them 18 years later, so there’s no need for a sequel to remind us of what we never forgot about in the first place. And regardless of what its title may imply, “Malcolm X” is not a sequel to anything.

But with “The Equalizer’s” Robert McCall, Washington has found a character whose story can last beyond one movie, and this was made clear in the final scene where he replied to someone’s plea for help over the internet. Now we have “The Equalizer 2” which reteams Washington with director Antoine Fuqua for another round of brutal retribution against those foolish enough to cross McCall’s path. While not much is different this time out, this sequel still proves to be as entertaining and thrilling as its predecessor.

We catch up with McCall who still resides in Boston, Massachusetts but now works as a driver for Lyft. This particular job allows McCall to befriend people like Sam Rubinstein (Orson Bean), a Holocaust survivor who is still trying to come to grips with what he has lost. Rubinstein also gives McCall an invaluable piece of advice which rings ever so true:

“Be nice to anyone who has access to your toothbrush.”

Among McCall’s victims this time around are a group of men who have kidnapped a little girl, and a bunch of young men afflicted with white privilege that have taken advantage of a female intern. Once again, these characters think they have McCall figured out and consider him as someone way past his prime, but we all know he is going to leave them in a world of pain because that’s why we paid money to see this sequel. The question is, will he take them out in 15 seconds or 29? Either way, McCall has found a very effective method to obtain a five-star rating from a Lyft passenger. Whether he gets a tip on top of that remains to be seen.

Things, however, get very personal for McCall when he learns his dear friend Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo) has been murdered while on assignment in Brussels, Belgium. The attack on Susan is especially brutal, but it’s nice to see her get a few punches in. With “The Equalizer 2,” Leo gets to remind us how she once portrayed one of television’s most unforgettable female police detectives, Sgt. Kay Howard, on “Homicide: Life on the Street” as she inflicts painful scars on her attackers. While at the press screening I wanted to yell out “Kay Howard lives!” But knowing from the trailers how Susan was going to meet a tragic end left me with anxiety and some despair as her fate was clearly sealed.

As you can expect, McCall goes on a mission of revenge which leads him to meet up and work with a former partner of his from the CIA, Dave York (Pedro Pascal). What he discovers is a complex web of corruption in which loose ends are being tied up to where the perpetrators are higher up the government ladder than he realized. Watching certain characters get eliminated in ways they do not see coming reminded me of what Captain James T. Kirk said in “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country:”

“First rule of assassination, kill the assassins.”

Denzel is simply the best, and he return to the role of Robert McCall as if he just made the original film yesterday. Is it even possible for this Oscar-winning actor to disappoint us? Well, anything is possible, but seeing him in the scene where he takes young Miles (Ashton Sanders), an aspiring artist, aside and gives him a strong lecture about the dangers of gang life reminds us why he is one of the best actors working. We have seen this scene of an older man telling a young one not to join a gang many, many times before, but Denzel brings a raw emotional power to this one which makes it feel as visceral as when Laurence Fishburne demanded Cuba Gooding Jr. give him back his gun in “Boyz n the Hood.”

Ashton Sanders proves to be a strong addition to “The Equalizer” franchise as he portrays Miles as someone clearly caught between two worlds and unsure how to navigate either of them. We learn his brother was senselessly murdered, and he looks to be on the hustle when it comes to painting buildings and apartments, something McCall sees right through. Ashton also figures in one of this movie’s most suspenseful scenes when Miles is trapped in McCall’s apartment as a couple of assassins break in. Fuqua wrings all the suspense out of this scene to excellent effect, and it left me pinned to my seat as I began to feel as unsafe as Miles did.

Fuqua has since proven to be a top-notch action film director as he takes average set pieces in formulaic motion pictures and gives them a jolt of energy and tension. Right from the opening sequence on a train in Istanbul, Fuqua shows once again how he and Denzel mean business, and he gives us a number of thrilling moments throughout like when McCall fights a knife-wielding Lyft passenger while trying to avoid oncoming traffic, or when he faces off against a trio of bad guys whom he promises to terminate with extreme prejudice.

“The Equalizer 2” culminates in an action set piece much like the one in the first film as McCall leads his pursuers into territory he is far more familiar with than they are. Last time it was in a hardware store, and this time it’s at seaside town which is getting battered by severe winds and heavy rainfall. But whereas those Russian gangsters were too late to discover how out of their league they were, McCall now finds himself hunted by those with the same military training. As a result, the odds are even and this makes the sequel’s climax especially thrilling.

Also returning for this sequel is screenwriter Richard Wenk who infuses scenes with subversive jabs I could not ignore. When one military character talks about how he was essentially cut off by the government to where he was forced to do things he never would have done otherwise, I was reminded of how politicians kept telling us to support our troops during wartime and then would later cut their veteran benefits. Wenk is certainly not out to bash us over the head with any political statements, but it is little moments like those which provoke my consciousness to a strong extent.

And Wenk once again has McCall reading a number of classic books among which, quite appropriately, is Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.”

Like I said, “The Equalizer 2” is basically more of the same, but I was fine with that as Washington and Fuqua are simply out to give us an action-packed thriller, and they have succeeded once again. If there is to be a third “Equalizer” movie with these two on board, I would certainly welcome it.

Looking back, it’s almost a shame they didn’t make McCall an Uber driver. Just imagine how he would have reacted to his earnings statement as Uber is known for taking a ridiculously high percentage from their drivers. This could have resulted in a terrific climax in which McCall visits the company’s corporate headquarters and tells the CEO, “I understand you pay more attention to your profit motive than to the safety of your drivers.” If there is anyone who could punish Uber for this and make them update their policies for the drivers’ benefit, it would definitely be McCall!

* * * out of * * * *

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‘The Equalizer’ Reminds Us Never to Mess with Denzel Washington

The Equalizer movie poster

When actors get to a certain point, they find themselves playing older men with a violent past which they have long since renounced, but we know they will jump back into action when the occasion arises. Whether it’s Liam Neeson in “Taken,” Sean Penn in “The Gunman,” Keanu Reeves in “John Wick” or even Clint Eastwood in “Unforgiven,” these characters end up falling back into their violent ways as life has left them little else to fall back on. A song by Eminem, “Guts Over Fear,” spells this out perfectly:

“It’s too late to start over. This is the only thing I know.”

This is certainly the case for Robert McCall, the main character of “The Equalizer” which was a popular show from the 1980’s. Now Denzel Washington makes this character his own in this cinematic adaptation which shows McCall leading a decent life at a Home Depot-like store named Home Mart where he befriends its many employees, and who spends his time outside work at his bare apartment or at the local diner reading a book. But a look into his eyes tells of a dark past he would rather not tell you about, and we all know this past is going to come roaring back.

This dark past comes to the surface when Alina (Chloe Grace Moretz), a teenage prostitute McCall becomes friendly with, ends up in the hospital after a severe beating. Seeing the damage done to her, McCall goes to the Russian mobsters who employed her to beg for her freedom. Even after he presents them with an envelope filled with over nine thousand dollars in cash, they are quick to dismiss him as just some old guy who is way past his prime. Unlike the “John Wick” movies where the villains react in embarrassment upon realizing who they inadvertently pissed off, the antagonists of “The Equalizer” have yet to realize how brutal McCall as they believe youth counts for more than age. By the time they come to see their mistake, the chance to make an apology is quickly rendered moot. Just ask the man whom McCall forcefully shoves a corkscrew under his chin to where you can see it inside his mouth.

Of course, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and McCall’s actions have infuriated the Russian Mafia to where they send out theiir chief enforcer Nicolai Itchenko (Marton Csokas) to deal with the situation. It is important to note one of the books McCall reads is Ernest Hemmingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” which is about an aging Cuban fisherman who struggles to catch a giant marlin out in the Gulf Stream. As the book begins, the fisherman has been unable to catch a fish for over 80 days, and “The Equalizer” starts with McCall leading a peaceful life which suggests he has not beaten the crap out of anyone for a long, long time. But we all know a giant marlin of sorts will be thrown into his path, and we are left wondering just how badly his antagonists will get their due justice.

There is no denying Washington is one of the best film actors ever, and “The Equalizer” could not have come to him at a better time. His career has lasted for several decades, and he has surpassed the point where he has nothing else left to prove. Washington was 59 when he played Robert McCall, and helps him give the character more gravitas as he now has the face of a man who has seen more than any person should in life. All he has to do is give off a look with his eyes or speak words with his still smooth voice to let us know he means business. And when he starts the timer on his watch of his, we know things are about to get nasty.

Watching “The Equalizer” reminded me of “The Gunman” which starred Sean Penn as a former special forces officer and mercenary whom we see at points apologizing to others for being so good at killing people, a skill he wishes he was never taught. Penn is another one of our finest actors, but his performance was laughable as his character displayed himself in a way which felt insulting to our intelligence. Washington, however, does not make this same mistake in playing McCall. There’s a scene in which he admits he has done things he is not proud of and that he gave up on doing them out of respect for his late wife, but a look into his eyes is enough to tell us he is not about to apologize for who he is and that he accepted this part of himself a long time ago.

“The Equalizer” also allows Washington to reteam with his “Training Day” director Antoine Fuqua, and this continues to be a match made in cinematic heaven. Let’s be honest, the plot of this movie is formulaic and hits all the notes we expect it to hit throughout, and we have a good idea of how things will turn out to where expect this to be a run of the mill action thriller. As long as it delivers the goods, this is enough.

Still, both Washington and Fuqua, along with screenwriter Richard Wenk, add their little touches to the material to where “The Equalizer” proves to be anything but average. Washington sells himself easily in this role, but he also adds a strong humanity to the character as we watch him help his friend Ralph (Johnny Skourtis) pass the security guard exam and keep a fellow employee calm while she is being robbed at gunpoint. Washington makes McCall a wonderfully rounded character in a way which could have come off as inescapably cheesy in the hands of another actor.

While Nicolai Itchenko comes off as just another overconfident gangster, let alone a Russian gangster, Fuqua gives Csokas some strong moments where a look at his tattoo-covered body reveals a man who has long since been rendered into a cold-hearted bastard to where any sense of empathy within him no longer exists. Csokas also has a scene where he stares off with Washington in the same way Al Pacino and Robert De Niro did in “Heat” as their characters try to figure the other one out, and he shows how deep Nicolai’s psychosis stretches in a way we do not often see in the typical action extravaganza.

Other actors make a sizable impact in their small roles, and it reinforces the saying of how there are no small roles, only small actors. David Harbour, before he became famous on “Stranger Things,” plays a corrupt cop whom McCall gives a chance to do the right thing in a coldly calculated way. Harbour makes the most of his moment opposite Washington when he yells out how life has given little in the way of choices to where he survives the only way he knows how. Sure, it may seem like a cliched moment, but Harbour sells it for all it is worth to where you cannot dismiss his performance as you walk out of the theater.

You even have Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo, two actors you can always depend on, showing up as Brian and Susan Plummer, a married couple and former CIA employees who were instrumental in McCall’s life and remain there for him in the aftermath of the tragedy he has suffered. Leo in particular brings a strong dramatic energy to her few scenes as she makes us see how Susan sympathizes with McCall’s situation to where she understands him in a way few others can or are willing to.

What I admired about Fuqua’s direction is that he has succeeded in making a slow burn thriller and not an action movie which hits the ground running like most do these days. Fuqua takes his time and is not quick to reveal everything about McCall to where the mystery of this man empowers the ultra-violent scenes to where we are constantly left on edge. When it comes to the movie’s climax at Home Mart, Fuqua keeps us as off-guard as the bad guys to where we cannot help but feel we are in their shoes as McCall takes them out with cruel precision. Ever since “Training Day,” this filmmaker has proven to be excellent at making action set pieces feel more visceral than they usually do, and he gets away with moving the story at a pace that seems unthinkable in today’s cinematic world which overflows with superheroes and comic book characters.

I’m not sure where I would place “The Equalizer” in the pantheon of Washington’s and Fuqua’s careers. It may not be among their best works, but it shows the care and intelligence they are willing to put into a typical genre film to where we got more out of the final product than we expect. I never did get the watch the television show which had Edward Woodward starring as Robert McCall, but I think it is safe to say Washington and Fuqua have taken this story and its main character and have safely made them their own.

* * * out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview with Cherien Dabis on ‘May in the Summer’

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May in the Summer” may look like the typical romantic comedy on the surface, but it’s really much more than that as it delves into a culture many of us have not seen. Cherien Dabis who wrote, directed and stars in this movie as May Brennan, a sophisticated New Yorker and an acclaimed author who travels to her childhood home in Amman, Jordan to prepare for her wedding. But shortly after reuniting with her sisters and her divorced parents, May begins to question whether she should go through with the marriage after experiencing a number of familial and cultural conflicts.

It was a pleasure talking with Dabis while she was in Los Angeles. While she talked at length about her movie, she also described just how much Jordan has changed from when she was a child. In addition, she spoke of the challenges she faced of acting and directing at the same time, what she was proudest of being able to capture onscreen about Jordan, and she talked about how actors Bill Pullman and Alia Shawkat came to be cast.

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Ben Kenber: What I really liked about “May in the Summer” is that it gives us a unique look into a culture that most people have seen from a distance, and in some cases a rather biased distance. How was it for you capturing Jordan on film?

Cherien Dabis: It was great. Jordan’s a country I know very well. I’ve been traveling there since I was a kid. My parents are Palestinian and Jordanian and I was born and raised in the US, but we would return to Jordan almost every summer. For the last three decades I’ve watched the country grow and change so much that it’s been really shocking the amount of growth and change. I knew I always wanted to do something there because what I find really particular to Amman specifically is that it’s not only become super westernized, but it’s also quite Americanized. There’s a lot of American schools popping up, there are a lot of young people who are speaking English with an American accent, there’s so much American culture and American products; there’s fast food chains and Starbucks. So it’s just the side of the Middle East that I didn’t think people would find really surprising, and I wanted to feature that and to be able to feature the country and parts of the country that I’d been going to since I was young and places where I really discovered myself. It was really, really cool.

BK: You both acted in and directed this movie. Initially, you were looking to cast someone else in the role of May, correct?

CD: Yeah, I didn’t write the role for myself. I spent about a year looking for someone to play the part and I wasn’t finding someone who I felt was really authentic to the culture and language, but also someone who really embodied the spirit of the character. At the same time, I kept getting people, like random people, who would suggest that I consider myself for the part. It was really shocking to me that people kept saying that to me, but enough people said it that I just finally was like okay, this somehow feels like I am meant to do this. I am meant to consider this, that maybe this is part of my journey. I think ultimately that’s what I found. I very hesitantly put myself forward. I put myself on tape, I watch myself back and it’s always such a trip to do that for the first time. It took a little while for me to find a sense of objectivity or at least as close to objectivity as I could, but I saw something there that was raw enough that felt like I could work with it and that embodied the spirit of the character and what I had been looking for, and I surprised myself a little bit. So I called myself back, I made myself go through this rigorous casting process only to discover that wow, I think I might be able to do this. It was kind of an amazing journey and one in which I kind of paralleled May in a way. May is on this journey of self-discovery, and by putting myself in the film I was also on a journey of self-discovery in having to make myself vulnerable just like the character in the film. And when I realized that I was like oh God, now I really have to do it. It really feels like the right choice for the film, but it was a tough one to make given all of the hats that I was wearing.

BK: In terms of acting, did you have someone looking out for you when you stepped in front of the camera?

CD: I did. When I made the choice to do it, I brought on someone who became a very good friend. He’s an acting teacher in Brooklyn and he became somewhat of an acting coach to me. So I worked with him for about a year and a half before making the film, and it was great because my training was really about getting as much experience in the skill of acting and directing and not back and forth in directing myself. It is a very specific skill and I wanted to have as much experience in it as I could before getting to set, and it was really important that I did that because I would’ve been a mess if I hadn’t. But he came to set and he was there for me. He was sort of my eyes and by then we had a short hand because we had been working together for so long, so it was really great to have them there.

BK: I really loved how the Dead Sea looked in this movie. It’s just beautiful to the point where the name seems a little contradictory considering how lively the atmosphere out there seems.

CD: Right, and yet strangely appropriate given what’s on the other side of the Dead Sea. It’s (Palestine) so close. The Dead Sea’s so small and narrow, and the other side of the shore is the West Bank. It’s sort of shocking when you’re standing there looking out and you’re at a resort where there are these really beautiful infinity pools and spas and food and drinks and people partying by the pool. It’s a very contradictory paradoxical experience, and that was something I wanted to capture in the film.

BK: What would you say you were the proudest of being able to capture in this film about Jordan and its culture?

CD: That’s a really good question. I think the surrealism almost of being in a place. I have not seen that yet in a film, and I do think that what sets this movie apart from other Middle Eastern films, or Middle Eastern themed films, is that it really explores family. It’s a story about family and it’s a story that’s really relatable about relationships, and it looks at divorce but through a wedding. In some ways, it’s a sort of a divorce drama disguised as a wedding comedy. So it’s this really relatable film that’s set in this really specific part of the world, and it shows a part of that world that we don’t ever really get to see. The surrealism of that world I think is really interesting. Being in a place like Jordan which is just surrounded by conflict is at times really surreal because you can find yourself living this totally seemingly normal existence where you are going to cafés with friends or going out to dinner. You’re just going about your work, your life and you’re interacting with family, and then a fighter jet flies by and it rocks your entire world and you suddenly remember where you are and you remember that anything could happen at any moment. It gives you this incredible sense of perspective on your life where suddenly what you’re going through is not so bad and your problems seem really trivial and you remember the greater suffering in the world. I think it affects you in your life and your choices and who you are in a way that’s very unique to that part of the world, and that’s something I really wanted to capture and I think that’s something that’s there in the film. It’s something that I don’t think you get to see very often.

BK: We see a number of women in “May in the Summer” wearing a full hijab (a veil which covers the head and chest). Is it something that’s still imposed on women in Jordan or is that something women do by choice?

CD: Both. I think a lot of women do it by choice, but for a lot of women it’s not a choice. It’s imposed on them by their families or by society or by the culture. I do think this is a movie that looks at expectations like that. Our main character is definitely on a journey of self-discovery where she’s trying to figure out what kind of future she wants. She’s trying to strip away a familial expectation, a parental expectation or a societal expectation or even a political expectation, and she’s really trying to connect with her own inner voice and her own truth. That’s the only way she can really move into her own future, so it looks at those levels of expectations.

BK: Bill Pullman plays your character’s father and it’s great to see him here. Was it hard getting him cast in this movie?

CD: Surprisingly not and I was really presently surprised by that. My producer sent the script to his agent and he really responded to the script and the role. He’s just a very adventurous spirit so he wanted to travel to Jordan, he wanted to have that experience and he really wanted to go to Petra which was amazing. He was just fabulous. The moment he arrived in Jordan he just immersed himself in the culture and he wanted to just soak it all in. He was making friends right and left and he was having dinner with people he just met on the street. Within the first day of shooting, he knew everyone’s names. He was really just a special, special person and I’m so glad that he came over and wanted to be a part of that. People appreciated him so much for being so open in the culture.

BK: Alia Shawkat, who plays your sister Dalia, is also wonderful here, and she was also terrific in “The Moment” where she acted opposite Jennifer Jason Leigh. How did you go about casting her?

CD: Well I had worked with Alia on my first film, “Amreeka.” I was a huge fan of hers from “Arrested Development.” I just loved her. My executive producer on “Amreeka” actually told me that she’s half Iraqi which I had no idea, but I was very excited by that because I’m always looking to cast very authentically. So when I found that out I approached her for a role in my first feature, and when I met her she just so was that character in my first feature. When I worked with her I just absolutely loved her. We had a great time and we became friends and we kept in touch. When I conceived of the idea for “May in the Summer,” I immediately thought of her for the role of the sister, Dalia. She just has such a similar voice to that character; witty, sarcastic and subversive.

BK: Was there anything that you wanted to put into “May in the Summer” but were not able to for one reason or another?

CD: Well there are always things like that. You quickly realize when you’re making independent films that you have limited resources and there always comes a time when you have to make really painful decisions, and I definitely did on this film. I had to cut things out that I think would’ve added a lot of fabric and texture. There were a number of sequences, one where May goes downtown and we see a whole other part of the Middle East and we see it go from the really nice sort of upper-class neighborhood to the more downtown, shoddy kind of refugee camp neighborhoods. We are more used to seeing that probably on the news, and I wanted to show that transition and a little bit more of the society and give a little bit more of the political context of Jordan and the refugee situation. But ultimately the heart of the story is this family, and I had to keep the essence of that story. When I had to make those difficult decisions, Fort Lee a lot of that texture had to be cut out because we just didn’t have the time or the resources to capture it.

BK: My understanding is there’s a film industry growing in Jordan right now.

CD: Yeah that’s right, there’s definitely a burgeoning film industry. The Royal Film Commission in Jordan is great; they’ve been there for I think about 10 years now and they help facilitate production. They were enormously helpful to us and the crews are gaining a lot of experience. Kathryn Bigelow’s last two movies were shot there and a lot of the people I worked with worked on those movies. Also, John Stewart’s movie (“Rosewater”) was shot in Jordan which was another great experience for the country. It was exciting to be a part of that, to be a part of the really up-and-coming film community.

My thanks to Cherien Dabis for taking the time to talk with me. “May in the Summer” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.