3 out of 5 stars

Few expected Antoine Fuqua’s The Equalizer (2014) to spawn sequels, not least because Denzel Washington isn’t known for returning to a role multiple times. But The Equalizer 3 completes an action trilogy that’s been a success despite sitting in the shadow of the John Wick films (which produced four films during the exact same timeframe), and perhaps feeling like a lazy way to emulate the success of Taken (2008), which ended its own trilogy the year Equalizer began. Fuqua’s films certainly feel more in the spirit of Taken, if only because both Liam Neeson and Washington came to these sorts of roles later in life.

The Equalizer 3 opens in media res with ex-Marine and intelligence agent Robert McCall (Washington) in Sicily, where he’s taken out a winery full of mobsters, only to sustain a life-threatening injury. A carabinieri called Gio (Eugenio Mastrandrea) finds Robert close to death, takes him to a doctor called Enzo (Remo Girone) in the picturesque coastal village of Altamonte, where Robert recuperates and gets to know the locals. Unfortunately, it soon becomes clear this idyllic community and its sweet residents are under the thumb of the Camorra —a mafia-style organisation attempting to transform the village into a lucrative port for illegal drugs.

There isn’t much about this story that’s fresh, but screenwriter Richard Wenk does a decent job hiding its simplistic nature in how the information is fed to audiences. The way the opening massacre gets a young CIA agent called Emma Collins (Dakota Fanning) involved adds an additional level of complexity, as it’s not immediately clear why McCall is feeding her intel and if the two storylines are directly connected. But this is ultimately a familiar tale of a highly-skilled operative trying to retire and live a peaceful existence, but finding himself forced to use his deadly skills to ensure said peace isn’t ruined by poisonous criminal elements.

As with most vigilante films, you’re here to see Denzel Washington teach the villains a lesson by deploying bone-crunching violence, and Equalizer 3 does an effective job introducing a variety of despicable men for McCall to calmly intimidate and eventually kill when they underestimate the threat he poses —such as young Marco Quaranta (Andrea Dodero) and his gang targeting a fishmonger and the family of the carabinieri who helped save Robert, and ultimately Marco’s older brother and Camorra boss Vincent (Andrea Scarduzio).

There’s an unexpected patience to The Equalizer 3, as it spends a surprising amount of time simply following McCall around the cobbled streets of Altamonte, drinking tea and getting acquainted with the residents like pretty waitress Aminah (Gaia Scodellaro). This is party because his wound needs time to heal, but also so we get to know and like the people he’ll soon help “equalizer” the odds for against the mob. Some will complain there weren’t as many scenes of McCall cracking skulls as one would expect or appreciate — especially from a film assumedly aiming to top its predecessors — and they have good reason. The drama-to-action ratio of Equalizer 3 is imbalanced, but it’s also a strength that Washington is given more opportunities to act than other action stars.

For as much as I love the John Wick franchise and what Keanu Reeves accomplishes physically, the character himself is little more than a cipher and almost cartoonishly indestructible. He even lives within a fantastical world of bullet-proof suits and assassins that follow strict codes of conduct. Even the original and best Taken was primarily fun because of Neeson’s deep-throated line deliveries and gravitas, not because we really cared about his character. Do you even remember that character’s name?

The Equalizer has felt different to me because Robert McCall is a more rounded individuals, despite following the archetype in films that use the same playbook as most vigilante thrillers. So while the action isn’t as jaw-dropping as even the worst John Wick set-piece, the trade-off is being a more grounded and believable piece of storytelling.

Director Antoine Fuqua knows how to deliver tension and stage moments of brutal violence, so even if 68-year-old Washington is using stunt doubles and hide an old man’s paunch under baggy shirts, his performance is always pitch perfect. McCall feels more human than other vigilantes on screen these days, and that’s a great way to add value to The Equalizer franchise when it can’t compete with John Wick in terms of action filmmaking and stunt work.

And while The Equalizer is based on a 1980s TV series and emulates a mid-1990s thriller, the throwback nature of it also appeals—especially as streaming producing so many terrible action films of the same ilk, only without as much care and attention in the filmmaking. Here, they actually shot on location in Italy with the actors, so just spending a few hours marvelling at Italian architecture instead of seeing ugly greenscreen backdrops of Rome feels worth the price of admission.

There are avoidable frustrations with The Equalizer 3, however, which mostly involve the pacing and aforementioned frequency of action. I don’t mind spending time on fleshing our characters and setting up relationships and situations, as it results in better pay-offs when the action invevitably comes, but this film does seem off-kilter.

We spend a fair amount of time with characters like Enzo the doctor and Aminah the waitress, who ultimately don’t get involved in the main story in a truly meaningful way — even to be killed or imperilled. And by the time McCall starts executing his plan to get rid of Vincent the mob boss, the resulting set-piece doesn’t feel as epic as the ones that closed the previous Equalizer films. I was surprised to realise the story was wrapping up when it did, as everything seemed a bit too easy for McCall this time. The film does a great job setting up horrible scumbags we can’t wait to see get their teeth knocked out, but nobody here poses the slightest challenge. 

I was expecting the sheer scale of the task to be a major factor, as it sounds like McCall will be taking on an entire criminal enterprise singlehandedly, but then it suddenly boils down to killing maybe a dozen goons in a mansion at night. Or for McCall to be hampered by his injury that hasn’t full healed. Or for the villains to get some leverage over him through the friends he makes in town. But there’s ultimately not much that causes him to break sweat, which was shame.

The Equalizer 3 is the worst of the trilogy, but that’s not to say it won’t please fans of this particular saga, or those who just enjoy films where Denzel Washington gets to return to Man on Fire (2004) territory. There’s even a fun echo to that Tony Scott film in having Washington co-star once again with Dakota Fanning, who’s now a grown woman of 29 not a girl of 10. Speaking of whom, Fanning is fine here and lightens the atmosphere with some amusing interactions with Washington, but never quite convinces as a capable CIA operative — even with the excuse this is her first field mission. Ultimately, Equalizer 3 provides solid action and instances of wince-inducing body injury, elevates by Washington’s usual charm and ability to hold attention on camera. And it looks especially gorgeous thanks to the cinematography of Robert Richardson (JFK), helped by the natural beauty if Sicily. Just don’t expect high art or anything you haven’t seen a hundred times before, often done better, and in the same franchise.

USA | 2023 | 109 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Antoine Fuqua.
writer: Richard Wenk (based on the TV series created by Michael Sloan & Richard Lindheim).
starring: Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, David Denman, Sonia Ammar & Remo Girone.