This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the films being covered here wouldn't exist.
by Philip Price
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Starring: Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning & Eugenio Mastrandrea
Rated: R (strong bloody violence and some language)
Runtime: 1 hour & 49 minutes
Denzel Washington is 68 years old and will be 69 this December. I can recall taking note of this fact when writing about the previous ‘Equalizer’ films as Washington was about to turn 60 shortly after the first premiered. In the last decade Washington, arguably one of our greatest and most charismatic actors, has not only made his first trilogy of films in the ‘Equalizer’ movies but has also been busy making character studies with Dan Gilroy, directing August Wilson’s “Fences,” as well as starring in Shakespeare adaptations with a Coen brother while sprinkling in a few other excursions like ‘Equalizer’ director Antoine Fuqua's “The Magnificent Seven” re-make and John Lee Hancock’s “The Little Things.”
While eight films in nine years may not seem like the actor is slowing down this most recent decade's worth of work compared to the previous mark some notable shifts in Washington's frame of mind. From 2003 to 2013 Denzel starred in a total of 13 films, nine of which were first categorized as an action movie. Not only was Washington more active in general, but he was choosing more physically demanding projects and while it’s obvious why the actor would want to slow down the older he gets this ‘Equalizer’ franchise has shown us Denzel can still pull it off when he wants. This all to say, “The Equalizer 3” is shockingly slow in its pacing and even when the action ramps up, it is limited. Whether this is to give Washington’s Robert McCall a break as well, because Fuqua wanted a steadier final act for his hero, or simply so that the (somewhat anticlimactic) payoff felt more rewarding after a long stretch of quiet, I’m not sure. Either way, this “choice” doesn’t do so much for the quality of the film as this third and final installment is again a rather by-the-numbers genre picture elevated only by having an actor of Washington’s caliber at the center to carry it.
Of course, the question from the get-go with this was how credible another McCall story might be at Washington’s age, but both Fuqua and his star find an intense and intimidating way around this in the opening sequence. Interestingly, that opening sequence may be the most impressive thing the film has to offer for most as it sees McCall doing what he does best in the most badass way before winding up in the sleepy coastal (and fictional) town of Altamonte in Sicily after an encounter with an underaged gunman. For the next 50 minutes of the film, we are simply vacationing with Denzel as he recovers from a gunshot wound and immerses himself in this community he’s stumbled upon. Further, the screenplay takes this time to define the people of this small but meaningful group of people as well as naturally putting in play a threat that’s connected to a local mafia and the pressure from outside forces that threatens to disrupt the peace in Altamonte. Throw in the CIA agents McCall anonymously ropes into the situation given he knows there’s more to this mafia than what it may initially appear, but while nice to see McCall find a kind of peace among the people of Altamonte and while nice to have some gorgeously cinematic shots of this insanely inviting town, and even as nice as it is to see Washington reunited with Dakota Fanning (it’s been 19 years since “Man on Fire”!) who plays one of the aforementioned CIA agents, there is something about every decision here that feels as if it were made with the goal being to take the easiest, most efficient way out when it came to closing this franchise.
Even in the construction of the film from a practical point of view, the score does a lot of heavy lifting and Fuqua relies on the fade-out/fade-in technique so often from scene to scene that it’s almost as if there was no intent to try and mesh the story with the filmmaking. This is without mentioning the issues with the script itself which, aside from taking that hour break from action in the middle of an action movie, provides us with a stock villain who might have had potential had they given him more screen time or maybe even more of an intimidation factor in the performance, but Andrea Scarduzio simply doesn’t have enough time or the presence to emphasize what he’s going for. The same could be said for Fanning’s presence as she is more or less wasted here given that 90 percent of her scenes feature her on a phone call while 90 percent of her being good at her job is due solely to the information McCall feeds her directly.
It’s not hard to understand why the film would want to focus on McCall and his arc or that it wants to keep Washington at the center of things, this is a completely understandable decision as even more than the “Robert McCall” of it all, Denzel Washington is the star here and the reason people will venture out to see this movie. Did I see both previous ‘Equalizer’ films? Of course. Do I remember much about them or McCall’s arc as a character that brought him to where he is at the beginning of this film? Not really. To that point, there is something of an arc for McCall to travel this time around as he has to admit to himself that he is getting older, that he may need to work smarter instead of harder, as well as questioning not necessarily why he does what he does, but if his actions towards accomplishing a greater good ultimately make he himself a good or bad man. This is limited to maybe two conversations though, so don’t think we get too contemplative here despite the film being rather patient in getting to what we paid for. Does it eventually get to what we paid for and do we see Denzel dispensing fools in between checking his stopwatch? Again, of course. Does that old-age mentality of working smarter, not harder make this whole thing feel even more like it takes the easy way out? Unfortunately, most definitely.