Denzel Washington continues doing bad things for good reasons in “The Equalizer 2”

The Academy Award-winning actor stars in his first sequel returning as blue-collar avenger Robert McCall.

Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) drives to an undisclosed location in Cape Cod in Columbia Pictures' EQUALIZER 2. Photo credit: Glen Wilson

Denzel Washington, the action hero? If we’re defining “action hero” in the same context as recent blockbusters with characters in suits using technology to defeat colonizers or jumping mid-air into a burning skyscraper, then Uncle Denzel is a couple of levels below on the totem pole. But, there’s something about a seemingly ordinary person using their skills to protect the everyday people who have been wronged. Or maybe I’m framing it based on my wishful thinking that everyday people (voters) will use their skills (the right to vote) to protect those who have been wronged (by voting). Sigh. I digress.

“The Equalizer 2” reunites the Academy Award-winning actor with director Antoine Fuqua for their fourth film project. This one is a big deal because Denzel doesn’t do sequels. It was the premise behind the promotional campaign during this year’s NBA Finals. I’m a sucker for creative marketing, so the commercials sold me on adding EQ2 to my movie list. Here’s my attempt at not spoiling it (completely).

For those of you who haven’t seen 2014’s “The Equalizer,” we met Robert McCall who lives a quiet life working at a home improvement store and enjoying late-night reading at a corner diner. All hell breaks loose after his usual companion doesn’t show up at the diner, and he finds out that she was beaten badly enough to land in the hospital. That’s when we’re let in on the secret that McCall is actually a retired Black Ops operative who promised his deceased wife that he’d leave that life behind. Harm to the innocent doesn’t sit well with him, so the rest of the film follows the nice-guy vigilante as he wears the metaphorical cape of an action hero to take down the bad guys.

In the latest installment, the blue-collar avenger is now a Lyft driver. It’s easier to find who needs saving when your customers are putting their troubles on display in the back seat. While the randomness worked in the first movie, it made the first 20 minutes of the sequel pretty sleepy. It picked up once things got personal; McCall was caught off guard by the death of his friend/former CIA handler. You felt the quiet rage as he pieced the puzzle together and knew that the murderer was going to die a horrible death (sidenote: the horrible death was overly dramatic and silly with a hurricane as a backdrop). It didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out who was behind the execution. How and why the killing happened unlocked details of McCall’s former life that revealed a man trying to find peace. The struggle of doing bad things for good reasons is at the core of almost every hero.

That subplot, though! The genius of Denzel Washington, the dramatic actor, came alive to tell the story within a story. The relationship between McCall and wayward teen Miles — played by Ashton Sanders of “Moonlight” fame — felt like an ode to the beauty and complexity of blackness. It was as if Sanders channeled his role as Chiron to infuse into Miles. Again, you see the bad things/good reasons logic like when Miles expressed his love for drawing but was willing to give it up, and school altogether, for quick money in the drug game to put food on the table. It was that same thinking that got his brother killed over a gym bag, and McCall wouldn’t let him take the easy way out.

Sensing McCall’s dedication, Miles asks, “Why me?” McCall simply responds, “Why not you?”

From there, they go on a journey with the elder imparting life lessons to his younger friend that felt very coming of age. A few moviegoers let out a “Yaaassssss” to the infusions of black culture like using Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” as a method of payment or making Richard Wright’s “Native Son” the secret entry to the safe room.

There shouldn’t be any debate about putting this franchise to bed. Ultimately, the predictable action storyline is simple entertainment. The stunts are bigger but unnecessary to prove that Denzel can hold his own as an action hero. As expected, it’s Denzel doing what he does best — committing to a character. Peeling back more layers of that character almost makes you justify his wrongs. Ashton Sanders is a breath of fresh air and will have you eager to see him as Bigger Thomas in the film version of “Native Son.”

Grade: B-

“The Equalizer 2” is in theaters now.

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