The Equalizer 3 is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2023. Read all about this ill-advised plan here.
An ultra-violent spaghetti western (complete with actual spaghetti), The Equalizer 3 (2023) would be a completely ignorable and fairly reprehensible direct-to-streaming-quality release, were it not for its star, Denzel Washington. One of the true movie stars of our time, Washington—as he has done with so many middling action films throughout his career—elevates this dour and dismal paean to pain through his sheer screen presence and effortless gravitas.
But is that a good thing? What, after all, is being elevated? Why is it worth Washington's time, and why is it remotely deserving of the added cachet his presence lends it? Like his contemporary and current multiplex neighbor Liam Neeson, Washington, who turns 70 next year, should be far too old for such macho adolescent fantasies of vigilantism and violence. (And—with all due respect to the former—Washington, at least, should also be too good for them.)
This is the third (and reportedly last) of the Equalizer movies Washington and director Anton Fuqua (Training Day) have made, very loosely based on an '80s TV show. And if they were only mediocre action flicks, their existence would be more forgivable, and Washington's involvement more understandable. (The films make money, and Washington—one of the only Black stars of his generation who could carry such a mainstream franchise—is not to be begrudged the paycheck.) But the Equalizer films are far more troubling than that, their approach and politics far more problematic.
There is nothing really wrong with enjoying the sight of Denzel Washington kicking a little righteous ass. (I have enjoyed that before, in better movies.) But there is a lot wrong—and not much at all right—with The Equalizer 3.
For the uninitiated, Washington plays Robert McCall, a former Marine and DIA agent who now uses his particular set of skills as a freelance righter-of-wrongs. The Equalizer 3 opens on one of his self-appointed missions in Sicily, where McCall has infiltrated a vineyard farmhouse, killing a lot of people in the process. (Fuqua's camera tracks through the house, lovingly showing us an entire Italian opera of murdered and mutilated bodies McCall has left in his wake.) "You took something that didn't belong to you," he calmly informs the Boss Man, who is destined to receive a shotgun blast up the ass at point-blank range just a few moments later.
We do not know what McCall is seeking to retrieve, but we assume it must be really important. (An atomic bomb, with which Sicilian separatists plan to murder millions? An innocent child, scheduled to be chopped up into a spicy ragout?) But surely it must be something unspeakably terrible and terrifically time-sensitive, for nothing else would seem to justify the grotesque orgy of violence McCall has left in his wake.
However, by the time the relatively-unimportant object of McCall's quest has been revealed—at the very end of the movie—some of us will have already started to wonder about the madness behind McCall's methods. Is this guy a noble knight-errant dedicated to defending the defenseless? Or is he really just a fascist psychopath who really likes killing people? (And—if it were anyone else but Denzel—would we even need to ask?)
The aftermath of the vineyard raid goes wrong. (Adding to the retired-gunslinger Western vibe that will permeate the entire film, McCall is wounded in a variation of Gene Wilder's back-story from Blazing Saddles: "Little bastard shot me in the ass!") McCall ends up recuperating in the village of Altamonte, on the Amalfi Coast, under the care of an inexplicably kindly doctor named Enzo (Remo Girone). A picturesque and absurdly idealized fantasy of Italian living—complete with adorable children, comely waitresses, and friendly fishmongers—Altamonte turns out to be the perfect place for McCall to eat, pray, and love himself back to a normal, non-homicidal existence.
But alas, it turns out the Mafia has its sights set on Altamonte, threatening to destroy McCall's rom-com-ready paradise. Meanwhile, McCall's one-man massacre at the vineyard has brought the CIA to town as well, in the form of a young agent named Emma (Dakota Fanning, touchingly reunited with her co-star Washington from 2004's Man on Fire, where at the age of 10 she gave a more convincing performance in a much better movie.)
Will McCall strap on his metaphorical six-shooters—he actually favors knives and cleavers—and defend his cinematic Paradiso from the tyranny of evil men? The answer to that question is never really in doubt, because nothing in The Equalizer 3 is ever really in doubt. McCall is an unstoppable, infallible killing machine—more a mindless Terminator than a roguish ronin—and once he becomes aware of a problem he has exactly one strategy to deal with it: walk into the middle of the bad guys and slaughter every last one of them in efficient, merciless, incredibly gruesome ways. (You might assume this tactic would prove too simplistic for some situations, and expect McCall to have to occasionally come up with a more clever plan. You would be mistaken. In the world of The Equalizer 3, McCall's extremely grim reaping turns out to be a one-scythe-fits-all solution, capable of correcting minor financial embezzlements, thwarting international terrorist cells, and bringing down several centuries worth of culturally-embedded organized crime.)
It is no doubt both pointless and hypocritical to complain about wanton violence in an action movie: wholesale slaughter has been on the movie menu for a long time, and we have all enjoyed some very bloody and delicious servings. (The body-count in John Wick 4 absolutely dwarfs that in Equalizer 3, and the former would be on my short-list for the best movies of the year.) What's more, I recognize that righteous mass murder has largely been the exclusive purview of White vigilantes in movies, and there is nothing inherently wrong with—and there may even be something valuable in—the sight of an unstoppable Black man claiming that authority for himself. That is a larger and far more complicated conversation than I feel either willing or qualified to undertake here.
But the violence in The Equalizer 3 is so brutally dumb and dour that it bludgeons any sense of fun or excitement or gleeful catharsis to death. McCall is such a joyless and relentless killing machine that the action sequences end up lacking both imagination and tension. There are no surprises, there is no visual creativity or clever choreography, and there is no thrilling sense of danger: There is just McCall strolling into a group of people and calmly murdering them all in unpleasant fashion. The issue is not whether these men deserve it. (The film is very careful to establish that these are Very Bad Men, who threaten innocent children, burn down the establishments of friendly fishmongers, and hang crippled old men from windows in their wheelchairs.) The issue, first and foremost, is one of bad movie-making: It's just not fun to watch. The "action" scenes have the aesthetics of a B-grade slasher film, and all the entertainment value of a school-shooting surveillance tape.
Moral authority, I realize, is hardly the point in these movies. (John Wick, after all, killed about 9,000 people in revenge for someone shooting his dog and stealing his car.) But there is something disturbingly disingenuous in the way The Equalizer 3 addresses the supposed rightness of McCall's actions. The question is raised several times: Is McCall a good man or a bad man? It is raised often enough–by McCall himself, and by people around him—that we might, reasonably, expect the question to be addressed, if not actually answered. But it isn't. There is no voice for restraint in the film, no judgement, no grappling with an ethical quandary, no recognition that such a man (whatever his motivation) might be somewhat terrifying to be around. McCall claims to want to give up violence, so he warns the bad guys to leave town, and when they haven't—literally two minutes later—he just walks up and kills them. And every time he does something like this, the cartoonishly decent townspeople respect him all the more, and the adoring eyes of the flirty waitress who passes for a love interest (Gaia Scodellaro) grow more and more moist.
"I don't get it," Emma says, at one point, of McCall's methods. "You will," McCall promises, and at the end of the movie we are supposed to believe that she does, when she returns what was stolen at the film's beginning to its rightful owner. We are supposed to believe that this small, anti-climactic act somehow justifies not just McCall's one-man killing spree but his entire approach to justice. But this fantasy—that one "righteous" man walking in and committing extrajudicial mass-murder is the cure to all of society's ills, and a direct path to love and respect—is a pathetic and deeply problematic one. It hardly originated with The Equalizer movies, and it will not end with them either, but it is dumb and dangerous and unspeakably bad for the world. Denzel doesn't get a pass on perpetuating it, just because he's Denzel. McCall isn't a hero: He's Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle with a better set of skills, depicted with far less craft and a completely irresponsible absence of irony.