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‘The Equalizer 2’ and the Appeal of the ‘Action Hero Who Walked Away From His Old Life’ Trope

Plus some other random thoughts about the new Denzel Washington thriller

In The Equalizer 2, Denzel Washington once again plays Robert McCall, a former CIA operative who walked away from his old life. His reason? He promised his wife before she died that he would. And so, in the 2014 original (based on the 1980s series), McCall is working at a Home Depot, a seemingly ordinary dude who is, in fact, a superhuman killing machine. Soon enough, though, he gets a chance to show off his old skills, protecting an innocent prostitute (Chloë Grace Moretz) from deadly Russian gangsters. He kills so many people in The Equalizer — and he gets to kill a whole bunch more in The Equalizer 2, where McCall is minding his own business as a Lyft driver before being compelled to avenge the murder of his close friend (Melissa Leo), a fellow agent. He doesn’t want to kill people! Circumstances just keep forcing him to.

The Equalizer films are part of a proud tradition of movies involving awesome enforcer/hitman types who, for character reasons, don’t choose to pursue the line of work they’re really good at. Bryan Mills, Liam Neeson’s Taken hero, used to be in the CIA — now he does security so he can be closer to his daughter. Will Sawyer, Dwayne Johnson’s Skyscraper hero, used to be in the FBI, but after losing a leg in a blown operation, he now works in security, telling a colleague ponderously at one point, “I put my sword down” — a farewell to his ass-kicking past.

As we all recall, Taken and Skyscraper were muted, intimate G-rated dramas that concerned the tranquil adventures of reformed men who were now happily non-violent. Just kidding: Those films (and plenty of others) use the conceit of the main character “who walked away from his old life” as a precursor to finding a way for the hero, oh-so-reluctantly, to pick that sword back up. It’s never the character’s choice, mind you — it’s always some terrorist or rogue agent who ruins everything.

There are a few reasons for the enduring appeal of this deeply disingenuous subgenre. For one, it plays into a romantic notion that a lot of men indulge — the idea that, hey, they’ve still got it. In recent years, we’ve seen a wave of “geri-action” movies (including Taken and the Expendables franchise) that cater to older guys who don’t want to think they’ve lost a step. Washington, who turns 64 in December, is certainly part of that ilk, but The Equalizer 2 aims for a more sophisticated tone, draping the proceedings in somber underpinnings as McCall glumly goes about his grisly business. In a sense, a film like The Equalizer 2 is an elaborate action-movie humble brag: This isn’t even my job, but I’m just so good at it.

The “action hero who walked away from his old life” narrative trope also has a handy moral escape clause — for the filmmakers, as well as the audience. In a conventional shoot-‘em-up, the protagonists deliver snide quips while dispatching dozens of bad guys in gory fashion. It’s all a little sadistic and callous. The violence is just as extreme in the Equalizer movies — Washington straight-up harpoons a dude in the sequel — but the filmmakers feel more justified in depicting such carnage because McCall didn’t want to return to this life. It’s meant to be mournful — even tragic — that because the world is such a terrible place, it requires someone who wants no part of this bloody business to intervene. And likewise, we can feel absolved for enjoying watching McCall lay waste to rapists and killers. We’re not getting off on the violence, you see — we’re appreciating the ethical complexity of this morally fraught situation.

Or whatever.

The king of this genre is probably Clint Eastwood, who started out as the iconic Man With No Name in a series of Sergio Leone Westerns, killing guys through gritted teeth and zero moral compunction before becoming the fascistic Harry Callahan in the Dirty Harry films. Later in his career, though, Eastwood began examining onscreen brutality from a more circumspect perspective, taking the full measure of how violence destroys lives — including those who inflict it upon others. Movies like Unforgiven and Gran Torino are about antiheroes who put aside their swords, but when the situation calls for it, they find themselves having to be heroes one more time — partly as some form of atonement for the violent men they used to be.

Robert McCall doesn’t come across as a bloodthirsty vigilante. He lives quietly at home. He’s a big reader. He looks after the elderly and the vulnerable. But his reflexes remain lightning-fast — there’s no sign of wear or tear on this aging warrior. It’s a comforting, seductive dichotomy: the killing machine who doesn’t savor the idea of killing. But there’s also a vicarious thrill to this character construction. None of us could do what McCall does in The Equalizer 2, but like McCall, we’ve walked away from whatever badass life we could have had — or at least that’s what we tell ourselves. It’s just one more fantasy that these movies peddle. Still, it’s not as ridiculous as the notion that the filmmakers are somehow commenting on the toxicity of violence by showing us sad-faced dudes killing tons of people and acting like they don’t secretly love it.

Here are a few other takeaways from The Equalizer 2. (Warning: There will be spoilers.)

#1. This is the first sequel Denzel Washington has ever made. Here’s the movie I wish it had been.

Washington has starred in a slew of action films, so you’d think that, by this stage of his career, he must have done a sequel at some point. But no: Until The Equalizer 2, he had never done a Part Two. This fact inspired some people, including Indiewire film critic David Ehrlich, to imagine what other sequels he could have done:

It’s an interesting wrinkle of Washington’s illustrious career that, although he’s a dependable commercial draw, he doesn’t make the sort of studio movies that do such incredible box-office that Hollywood would be nuts not to do a follow-up. (His highest-grossing movie worldwide is American Gangster, which made only $267 million. By comparison, Tom Cruise has made 15 films that have made more than that. Hell, Washington’s Magnificent Seven costar Chris Pratt has made six that have made more than that.)

Still, the one Washington sequel I would have loved was Inside Man 2, a follow-up to the 2006 crime thriller he made with frequent collaborator Spike Lee. The original starred Washington as Keith, a smart New York detective squaring off with Dalton (Clive Owen), a crafty thief who’s in the midst of a bank heist. Lee always captures New York City with more vibrancy than any other director, and the city’s rude, bustling energy serves as a dynamic backdrop as these two characters engage in a highly verbal game of cat and mouse.

Skillfully channeling the kind of expert, character-driven thrillers that were prominent in the 1970s (particularly Dog Day Afternoon), Inside Man was a hit — it’s still Lee’s highest-grossing film — and for years Lee tried mounting a sequel. Finally, in 2011, the director acknowledged that it probably wouldn’t happen. “Inside Man was my most successful film. … But we can’t get the sequel made,” Lee said then. “And one thing Hollywood does well is sequels. The film’s not getting made. We tried many times. It’s not going to happen. … But money is a big part of film, unlike a lot of other art forms.”

Nobody needs more sequels, of course, but especially for Lee — one of America’s best filmmakers, who struggles to get financing for his projects — it would have been great for him to have a guaranteed pay day. Washington and Lee haven’t worked together since Inside Man. (There’s been talk of a follow-up to another Washington/Lee pairing, He Got Game, although it’s unclear if Washington will take part.)

But if an Inside Man 2 never materializes, a different sort of Washington sequel is coming soon from Lee. The filmmaker’s next movie, BlacKkKlansman, hits theaters August 10 — and stars John David Washington, Denzel’s son.

#2. How hard is it to have a real-life fight scene in a moving car?

The Equalizer 2 features a sequence in which McCall, in his duties as a Lyft driver, is shepherding a suspicious-looking dude in the back of his car. Turns out his passenger is actually there to kill him, setting in motion a pretty great fight scene inside the car while McCall is driving it.

For years, Hollywood has enjoyed staging action sequences inside moving vehicles, whether it’s in Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Matrix Reloaded or Deadpool. Hand-to-hand combat is dangerous enough — pair it with a car traveling at top speed, and there’s no limit to the amount of ways characters could die.

I started wondering: If you actually found yourself in a battle for your life inside a moving car, what should you do? The internet didn’t have a lot of handy tips, but it did provide some weird/scary real-life instances of people getting into fights while driving. Try none of this at home.

First, I present you with a tale from Port Charlotte, Florida from 2012. The scenario: One guy and two women all leave a bar together, the guy convinced he’s about to have a threesome. Long story short, no such luck, and after a failed hookup with one of the two women, he ends up in a car with the other, named Amanda Jean Linscott. This is what happened:

While driving, Linscott starts touching our protagonist (?) and, according to the local Fox affiliate, “having sex while he was driving.” Having snared the driver in her sensual web, she explains that she needs money, too. Our guy explains he gave all his cash to the first woman, so Linscott does the only rational thing she can think of to a horny, admittedly broke guy driving a car: she pulls a .357 revolver, points it at his head, and demands money.

Of course, this all turned out just as she planned. The guy grabs the gun, they struggle, he punches her in the face, and then, just to really cap the night off, he loses control of the Nissan Sentra and hits a palm tree. He bolts across a couple of lawns, she takes off. Eventually, he goes back to the car, limps it over to some nearby friends who presumably laugh at their poor, horny, judgment-impaired pal, and call the cops.

So, yeah, not quite like the movies. There are other instances. Earlier this year, a Washington State man tried to steal a woman’s truck, while her two-year-old was inside the vehicle, which caused the woman to jump into the truck just as he was pulling away. A quick fight ensued:

Finally, there’s footage of two guys getting into a fight on a Saudi Arabia highway — while they were in two separate moving cars, although it appears only one of them wasn’t behind the wheel. The one who isn’t driving gets the worst of it:

To review: Fighting in cars, don’t do it.

#3. I love when movies have characters read books that are thematically on point.

In the first Equalizer, McCall bides his time reading. But he’s not just reading any old book — he’s reading The Old Man and the Sea, a major piece of literature from Ernest Hemingway. But, because this is a movie, he’s not simply interested in the book because it’s good — it’s because it gives the filmmakers a way to lay out the themes of the movie in a really on-the-nose way. McCall explains why he appreciates the book’s ending to the young prostitute, saying, “The old man’s gotta be the old man. Fish gotta be the fish. Got to be who you are in this world, no matter what.” You see, it might appear that McCall is just talking about Hemingway’s character but, holy cow, he’s also talking about himself. McCall can’t change who he is — he, too, has to be who he is in this world.

I love when books are introduced in movies because I know — Alert! Alert! — it’s time for the screenwriters to lay out exactly what the film is about. When an English professor is teaching a novel or play in his class, you can bet that piece of fiction perfectly parallels the film’s themes. It’s like when, in Donnie Darko, Drew Barrymore’s teacher character discusses Graham Greene’s The Destructors and Donnie riffs on the short story’s theme of creation coming from destruction, a hint of what’s to come at the end of the film.

The Equalizer 2 continues the first film’s use of having McCall read thematically-obvious books. Our antihero digs into two works during the sequel: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ National Book-winning Between the World and Me and Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Coates’ personal piece, written as a letter to his son, maps the writer’s experience as a black man coping with racism. Proust’s classic novel, among other things, is a study of memory, the passage of time and the fundamental mystery of being alive.

Helpfully, the film underlines what it’s about through these two books — racism and existentialism are at the core of The Equalizer 2. McCall befriends a young black man (Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders) who’s in danger of being dragged down by the drugs and crime in his impoverished community, and he gives the kid Between the World and Me as a guide to envisioning a better life. As for In Search of Lost Time, The Equalizer 2 fancies itself as a moody character study, which the Proust references are meant to amplify.

The fact that the movie’s themes are sloppily executed makes the use of such major books even sillier. Hey, if The Equalizer 2 helps sell some copies for Coates, that’s fine by me. But this is such an unserious film that it shouldn’t have tried to graft itself to these writers’ brilliance. Your average comic book would have been more appropriate.