Carnage in Sicily: A winery overturned, its workers bloodied and brutalized lying dead on the floor. It’s hard to tell if it’s Merlot or viscera pouring across the pricy marble. The vineyard’s owner snakes wends his way through the carnage, down the stone stairs to the basement, where one man sits waiting for him. This is Robert McCall (Denzel Washington), and he’s got a bone to pick. He sets his watch, he does his job, and he leaves the property in a mess of bodies.
This is the third entry in director Antoine Fuqua and writer Richard Wenk’s version of the 1980s television show ‘The Equalizer’ (and not to be confused with the 2021 television reboot starring Queen Latifah). The first two ‘Equalizer’ films were drab, dire affairs: Washington’s McCall, like his TV predecessor, was a retired intelligence eager to seek a quiet intellectual life, if only meddling criminals stopped getting in his way.
McCall is a do-gooder with a menacing undercurrent, capable of extreme kindness and ruthless execution. In past outings, Washington sacrificed much of his trademark charisma for moralistic lecturing on the youth of today who are at risk of sex trafficking and gang violence if they forgo the Equalizer’s guidance. What a minor miracle, then, that ‘The Equalizer 3’ lets loose a little, taking its protagonist to Italy for some needed R&R –– barring interruption from any local organized crime outfit.
Previously set in Boston, ‘The Equalizer 3’ benefits from its change of pace: McCall finds his place in a small coastal town outside of Naples called Altomonte (which, though the name of a real Italian town, seems to be fictitious), living with the town doctor Enzo (Remo Girone) and enjoying tea at the local café where he chats up Aminah (Gaia Scodellaro). There’s great pleasure to be had in watching McCall at ease, shopping, cooking, and climbing the town’s many steps. Children love him, senior citizens respect him. Maybe McCall has found one last place to call home.
There’s one issue, of course, and that’s the encroaching Camorra, with their loud motorcycles and garish tattoos, who threaten the peace and quiet of Altomonte. The intimidating Vincent (Andrea Scarduzio) runs Naples — eager to open as many hotels and casinos as possible with all cash flowing back to him — but his hot-headed little brother Marco (Andrea Quaranta) moves through Altomonte with his band of thugs, beating up the local cops and setting fire to the fish shop. It also seems like perhaps the Camorra was attached to that Sicilian vineyard. Someone, maybe an Equalizer, has to do something.
Perhaps it’s the Mediterranean climate, but Washington presents a much looser, relaxed McCall, eager to enjoy his early retirement. The fish-out-of-water setting grants him space to hone banter with the locals, and the lack of subplot focusing on a bad kid with a heart of gold goes unmissed. IT also helps that ‘The Equalizer 3’ is gorier, too, its action a little more thrilling, playing into the almost-superhuman-like combat skills of its protagonist like a running joke. With everything a little bigger and the film significantly more beautiful — the wonderful Robert Richardson (‘Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood,’ ‘Casino’) behind the camera — the stakes feel worthy of their larger-than-life star.
In order to topple the Camorra, however, McCall is going to need a bit of outside help for which he turns to a young CIA financial analyst Emma (Dakota Fanning), their relationship a bit more like a game of fetch than a true partnership. Like any millennial worth McCall’s time, Emma is dogged and stubborn, skeptical but always eager to lend a hand. Though their scenes together are few all considered, it’s an unexpected delight to see Washington and Fanning reunited nearly twenty years (!) since they did ‘Man on Fire.’ On screen together, the duo have a natural, easy, and perhaps most importantly, funny rapport: he underestimates her; she tries him. Their shared scenes are far and away the film’s best.
Unfortunately, ‘The Equalizer 3’ still falls victim to some of the series’ worst instincts. The villains are lackluster, no match — or semblance of suspense — for McCall’s inventive assassinations. There’s also the increasingly prevalent conservatism of the film, more concerned than it ought to be for a new designer amphetamine they keep calling “jihad drugs.” Though not set on American soil, ‘The Equalizer 3’ is preoccupied with the preservation of “small town life,” where an old person can hand you a fresh lemon in the town square and everyone loves your new hat. McCall represents one of the more terrifying bogeyman of contemporary film: an ex-military genius eager to dole out just desserts at his own discernment (the film’s poster goes so far as to photoshop Washington’s reflection into the scales of justice).
With a lighter, looser script, however, the heavy-handed politics go down smoother, whether they are palatable or not. And those Camorra gentlemen really are bad news! ‘The Equalizer 3’ skips the drama over what will be done to those who act against the charming Altomonte — nothing good, that’s for sure — and instead keeps the audience guessing whether or not McCall will get his long-awaited retirement on the seaside. It’s safe to say that by now he’s earned it.
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