‘The Equalizer 3’ Review: Denzel Washington’s Vengeance Machine Shows Signs of Age

Washington's undimmed presence is not enough keep this franchise vital as it goes to a third installment.

Denzel Washington in The Equalizer 3. Stefano Montesi/Columbia Pictures

The pleasures of the Denzel Washington Equalizer series, which kicked off in 2014 and seemingly concludes this week with the third installment, are pretty straightforward. 

THE EQUALIZER 3 ★1/2 (1.5/4 stars)
Directed by: Antoine Fuqua
Written by: Richard Wenk
Starring: Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, David Denman
Running time: 109 mins.

Extended moments of quietude as Washington’s retired military operative observes, contemplates, sips tea, and folds napkins like a maître d’ girding for the dinner rush are punctuated by quick bursts of extreme and efficient violence, during which he disposes of gangsters, drug dealers, pimps, and rogue operatives with the precision of a Swiss clock. It’s not rocket science — or even 9th grade biology for that matter — and with Washington returning alongside the series originators, director Antonio Fuqua and writer Richard Wenk, there is no reason not to expect more dependable, righteous splatter.

So then why does Equalizer 3 feel so slack? Like many third iterations, this one shows signs of the creative team growing bored with what made the story worth telling in the first place. 

Gone are the hardscrabble streets of East Boston, replaced by the terraced cliffsides of Italy’s Amalfi Coast. The relationships with the common folk whose impossible predicaments fuel his high-minded bloodbaths are half-baked at best. (There’s an anemic attempt to give Washington a love interest, courtesy of a cafe owner played by Gaia Scodellaro, but the movie loses interest before things can percolate.)

And then there is the title character himself, Robert McCall — “Roberto” to the locals — who begins the film a wounded duck, and never seems to get his ass-kicking sea legs under him until the final throat is cut.  

The overthinking is evident from the onset. The film opens with the camera, commandeered by the great Robert Richardson in his second teaming with Fuqua (he was behind the washed-out look of last year’s disappointing Emancipation), gliding over the bloodied corpses of what we instantly recognize to be McCall’s most recent targets. (The meat clever still lodged in a guy’s forehead is a dead giveaway.) When we finally catch up with him, he artfully dispatches with a few more bad guys and then is wounded himself.

The problems here are myriad. Starting this kind of movie after the action has already taken place is akin to waking up on Christmas morning to find all of your presents unwrapped. Then there is the manner in which McCall is shot, which inadvertently calls to mind the Waco Kid in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles.    

McCall is found by a kindly cop and taken to an even more kindly village doctor for recovery. It’s the perfect place for McCall to recuperate — all the shop owners are sad sacks ripe to be rolled by local mafioso and all the children seem to exist only to be kidnapped later on. 

When McCall stumbles upon a drug-smuggling potential terrorist cell, he contacts an unseasoned CIA analyst played by Washington’s onetime Man on Fire costar Dakota Fanning, whose character is developed with the same degree of care as the rest of the secondary figures in McCall’s world, which is to say, not at all. 

Equalizer 3 commits the cardinal sin of the “geriaction” genre, puncturing its escapist pleasures by forcing its hero to struggle with the health and mobility issues the AARP set faces in real life. (Stairs are an issue for him.) As a result, the film’s fleeting moments of satisfaction come not from the action, but from the brief monologues that precede them, when Washington previews their demise to his intended victims.

“I’m not threatening you,” he tells one sad fool who ends up splatted against a palazzo wall. “I’m preparing you.”

Washington is wonderful in these moments, coating their latent absurdity with an intensity that he is able to make playful and insouciant. That his undimmed presence, which remains as fiery as any in modern cinema, is somehow not enough to make this turgid sequel compelling, is something for which few of us can truly prepare.

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

‘The Equalizer 3’ Review: Denzel Washington’s Vengeance Machine Shows Signs of Age