There is a reason that the Equalizer franchise has been so enduring. From television series to franchise powered by Denzel Washington, and then back to a series with Queen Latifah taking over from Edward Woodward. There is something hopeful about seeing the wicked punished and the innocent vindicated. And so it is with EQUALIZER 3, which is wise enough not to mess with a proven formula even as the stage on which it plays expands and the atmosphere becomes almost operatic.
We find ourselves in Sicily, where a rural vineyard is basking in the golden glow of the late afternoon sun. But there is carnage afoot, as an old man and a young boy arrive there to be greeted by well-armed corpses in a variety of post-death throes. The old man, leaving the boy to wait in the truck, soon discovers what has happened, and that he is sitting with two guns to his head feeling sorry for both gunmen. Of course, it’s Robert McCall, ex-government assassin turned evener-of-scores for the weak and helpless, and in this opening sequence, he reminds us all of why he’s the one to call when you are in trouble. But McCall is getting soft. Not when it comes to dispatching the bad guys. That is as quick and crisp as ever. It’s that little boy in the truck. McCall turns his back. Bad move.
And yet it’s the one that lands him in Altamonte, a picturesque town with a thousand-year history perched on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean. There he is taken by the local policeman, Gio Bonucci (Eugenio Mastrandrea) to the local doctor, Enzo Arisio (Remo Girone), the one who delivered most of the town and knows when to report gunshot wounds as a bad fall. It’s a quaint place full of quaint people who all know each other and enjoy a strong sense of community. Has McCall finally found the peace he never realized that he craved? It looks that way until the Mafia, locally known as the Camorra, muscle their way in with big plans to gentrify the town into a posh tourist trap. And killing the old man in the wheelchair is their chosen method of sending a message to those not willing to go along with the idea by vacating the premises.
Be it fate or serendipity, McCall has never been needed more, and when the thugs start picking on his new friends, he does what he always does. He lets them know what the consequences will be, and when they laugh, he wipes that grin right off their faces. This is a violent film, with Mafioso so tough that they continue to stumble around even after being, essentially, pithed. By the time we get to the guy carrying his own hand out in an ice bucket on the way to having it re-attached, such things have become normalized, but still suitably shocking.
In a town where no one asks how or why he took the bullet that brought him to Altamonte, no one is much surprised when the vigilante taking out the Mafioso is revealed to be McCall. But then these are a welcoming people even when things are going well, as evidenced when Enzo’s cute-as-a-button daughter give McCall some cookies after meeting him rather than keep them for herself (and of course it’s a signal that this delightful child will at some point be in grave danger). It’s a place where the comely waitress, Aminah (Gaia Scodellaro), as the local cafe flirts with McCall by bringing him a coffee instead of the tea he ordered because only old ladies and Englishmen drink tea, and where the local fishmonger (Daniele Perrone) refuses payment for the fish McCall is buying for Enzo.
There is no subtlety about the evil characters here, yet, like the rain that falls on both the just and the unjust, violence reigns down on everyone with a shocking lack of discrimination. For some, repeatedly. True, you need that element to fully savor McCall giving the bad guys their comeuppance, but still.
Washington is, as usual, terrifically charismatic as the methodical and thorough killing machine. He adds a spark of genuine, if understated, delight to McCall’s metamorphosis. There’s even a sense of ease heretofore missing from that character who, while always calm, was also always on guard. There’s even an avuncular cast to the relationship he establishes with Emma Collins (Dakota Fanning at her steely and brainy best), the CIA agent he tips off to the so-called Jihad drugs being smuggled into Sicily. Because why not raise the stakes to a global level?
If the tropes begin to infringe on Godfather territory, at least they are beautifully rendered with exquisite cinematography reminiscent of Renaissance masterworks, and direction from Antoine Fuqua that is en pointe at all times, and wondrously evocative of the mood shifts throughout. EQUALIZER 3 is a morality tale writ large that makes us forget the pitfalls of vigilante justice. Violence breeds violence in this world, the only difference is who started it. All we can do is be grateful that McCall is there to make things right.