The Equalizer 3 review: A wonderfully loose and violent farewell

Denzel Washington’s art is doom, but The Equalizer 3 isn’t quite his masterpiece, bidding farewell to its unwavering vigilante featuring horribly brutal brutality and a poorly-salted story.

“On a scale of one to 10, that’s two,” Robert McCall says to a poor mafioso as he presses his thumb against the median nerve like it’s silly putty. “That’s three… You don’t want me to go to four. I’ll go to four, don’t blame yourself.”

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This is the secret sauce of Antoine Fuqua’s series: a joint-whitening simplicity in McCall’s skill set–which then leads to barbaric, hysterical bloodshed–and Washington’s icy delivery. The ease with which he turns from simpatico everyman to murderer is incomparable; It’s this complete listening, total vision, and wired composure that puts him step, punch, and shot in front of his enemies.

The Equalizer 3 is a deep feast, pitting Washington’s guardian angel against waves of bad-ass villains who deserve their gruesome demise – if only they kept things that simple. Instead, the troubling and disturbing context of the villains prevents the film trilogy from reaching the watchable heights of its predecessors.

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Equalizer 3 delivers gore from the start

We open to a Sicilian vineyard that may also be the Somme; Men were lying against the walls, the remains of their brains strewn about the walls, machetes lodged in their faces as flies buzzed about their remains. The boss leaves his grandson in the car as he gets inside to assess the damage, and suspicions grow that this is some kind of Mafia origin story for the villain – but when he turns a corner in the basement, we see McCall sitting quietly as he is surrounded by his henchmen.

“They should have let me in,” he says, not quite for anyone but himself; Remember, this is a man tormented by his addiction and willing to die. “I took something that doesn’t belong to you, and I’m here to take it back,” he adds, before giving everyone nine seconds to comply. If McCall tells you some time, you’d better run: Within that particular window, he dispatches every idiot in the room; He puts his gun to one in the eye and shoots the other several times in the head…through the head, while another is shot in the backside with a double-barreled shotgun as he drags himself across the dusty and bloodstained concrete.

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This is just the beginning, and we won’t spoil how he ends up in a picturesque port city in southern Italy – add Altamonte to the list of fictional locations along with Val Verde. McCall has always found peace in the little things of life. The way he unfolds the napkin and places it on the table, the same distance from the edge the teacup, book and spoon must be. He finds a similar spirit in the fabric of this place and begins to see it as the light behind the black gates – but its people live in constant fear of the Mafia and fund-raising enforcers who won’t hesitate to burn down a store if they don’t pay.

“One day, someone does something unspeakable to someone else… someone you barely know, and you… do something about it because you can.”

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Visual and auditory step down

As subtle as Washington’s choreography and physical presence are – he’s an awkward force of nature for the younger, faceless stars out there – Robert Richardson’s shadowy cinematography feels cheap this time around, and Fuqua’s direction doesn’t seem inspiring. There’s nothing on the level of the barbed-wire-and-nails-hinged Home Mart finale, nor the first installment’s hurricane climax that turns McCall into a homeless villain. Make no mistake: the event is exhilarating, but even the saddest moments begin to fade from memory.

Sony pictures

Marcelo Zarvos’ music has a rushing, gritty motif anytime mafia hits the town, but the absence of Harry Gregson-Williams’ smile-inducing Equalizer theme is deeply felt – also remember when the first movie dropped likes from Moby’s New Dawn’s Fading and Zack Hemsey’s Revenge? These musical choices have enhanced the film’s impenetrable B-movie charm – and without them, a sense of self-seriousness creeps in at a time when we should be having more fun.

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The 2014 film is the first time anyone seems to have the juice to rival Washington’s longtime partnership with Tony Scott (funnily enough, Gregson-Williams also penned their best film together, Man on Fire), and while the second entry is about to creak, this has different energy; Nastier, quieter, less considerate, and designed to satisfy those who seek McCall’s sadism rather than the whole equalizer package.

Being reunited with a man on fire is a treat

We’ll never tire of watching Washington bust someone before entering full killer mode, but some of the best scenes center on his reunion with Man on Fire co-star Dakota Fanning, who is now an adult and plays the CIA. The officer who tracks down McCall after the events in Sicily. Their volatile chemistry is still as strong as it was nearly 20 years ago, and even for the Oscar winner, there’s a palpable sense of ease in Washington when he shares the screen with Fanning; Small smiles that seem unwritten, a stream of giddiness that represents the indirect joy of the audience.

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Dakota Fanning and Denzel Washington in The Equalizer 3Sony pictures

The cast is mostly good. Gaia Scodelaro plays an affectionate coffee shop owner who becomes smitten with McCall and brings him out of his shell, affecting the actress’s warmth, while Remo Geroni plays a affable local doctor whose relationship with McCall becomes more intimate and enjoyable.

The bad guys are a massive disappointment. Led by Vincent Andrea Scardzio, they carry out a vile warning shot punishment — in one scene, they hang a wheelchair-bound grandfather from a window — and while that’s scary in the film’s universe, it rings hollow for us. Marton Csoukas’ Nikolay was comically ruthless, but his impulsiveness and lack of compassion were conveyed effectively – and most importantly, he was menacing. Here, McCall dispatches anyone and everyone without much challenge; None of them know their game, so why should we respect theirs?

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The movie tries to get us invested in mob dealings with “jihadist drugs” that line the pockets of terrorists – yeah, we don’t really get that either – but as soon as it gets out of Washington’s orbit, the whole thing starts to unravel. Thankfully, at just around 110 minutes, we don’t spend a lot of time away from McCall – but enough to feel like there’s a problem at the end.

The Equalizer 3 game review score: 3/5

Denzel Washington’s trilogy is an all-you-can-eat buffet of joys and violent endings, a tender farewell to the modern B-movie legend.

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The Equalizer 3 is now available in UK cinemas, and will hit US theaters September 1st. Find out more about the film’s cast here and our other coverage here.

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