It's not surprising there's a podcast called Denzel Washington Is the Greatest Actor of All Time Period. He's great in prestige dramas like Malcolm X, great in crowd-pleasers like Remember the Titans, and he's even great in terrible action movies like Safe House and the first Equalizer. His ability to elevate any material is a gift that only a handful of actors have. So if he keeps getting fat paychecks for movies like this, while still finding time for Oscar-worthy work in movies like Fences and Flight, well that's just fine.
One of the many reasons I miss Tony Scott is that he had a way of turning the most boilerplate action films into something resembling work. His collaborations with Washington (Man on Fire in particular) are some of both guys' best work. Since Scott's death, Washington has reunited three times with Antoine Fuqua, who directed him to a long overdue Oscar in Training Day. But Fuqua's no Tony Scott. In fact, he's one of our weakest directors, making movies that are at best passable versions of things we've seen before. Occasional use of slo-mo does not an auteur make.
The first Equalizer was a grim compilation of gratuitous violence without style. It paled in comparison to John Wick, released just a month later. But Denzel kept your eyes glued to the screen, as Robert McCall, a lone badass righting wrongs throughout the city (and later, implausibly, around the world).
The sequel improves upon the original in every way, mainly by making McCall's vengeance personal. His old co-worker Susan (Melissa Leo) is marked for death the moment she tells him "I'm the only friend you've got," getting killed while investigating a murder in Brussels. McCall turns to their mutual friend Dave (Pedro Pascal) to find the killers.
You can see the twist coming a mile away, and the extended metaphor of an "approaching storm" that becomes literal is a plodding screenwriter mistake. But Dave Wenk's script makes up for this by including a strong subplot in which McCall mentors a surly but talented teen (Ashton Sanders, Moonlight) in his apartment building, keeping him away from gang violence and indulging his creative side.
Both of these stories collide in the third act, culminating in a finale that's basically incoherent. McCall has a big showdown with the bad guys in his hometown, which is directly in the path of a hurricane. It's a big, expensive set piece that mainly functions to show off its sound effects editing. (Go for that Oscar, guys.) But you can barely see the action, and its final mano e mano is 90 percent Denzel's stunt double.
Still, The Equalizer 2 is a step up from the original, raising the stakes and making an effort that's not just watchable, it's occasionally even enjoyable.