Photo: Sony Pictures

He doesn’t wear a costume or even go by the titular moniker. All the same, Robert McCall, the ex-special-ops vigilante Denzel Washington plays in The Equalizer and its crummy new sequel, is essentially a superhero. Like Spider-Man, he seems to possess a kind of infallible danger sense, and he shares with Batman keen powers of deduction, a veritable black belt in martial arts combat, and a tragic backstory. By day, McCall reads literary classics and paints over gang graffiti on the side of his Brooklyn apartment complex. By night, he hands bullies their asses; the guy has a real knack for finding Boston’s most vulnerable and abused, and then hunting down their oppressors. Every superhero needs a gimmick, of course, and The Equalizer’s is especially mannered and pointless: He likes to time his righteous, bone-crunching rampages with a stopwatch.

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There’s a bit less bone crunching this time around, actually, and that’s not really a good thing. Loosely adapted from the late-’80s Edward Woodward TV crime drama of the same name, the first Equalizer was dismal trash: a particularly joyless entry in the post-Taken cycle of middle-aged ass-kicker movies. If there was any pleasure to be pulled from that mechanical parade of brooding, torture, and bloody executions, it was strictly of the lizard-brain variety. The Equalizer 2, which reunites Washington with director Antoine Fuqua and screenwriter Richard Wenk, puts fewer disposable goons in McCall’s crosshairs, trading the original’s rote killing-up-the-ranks revenge campaign for some half-assed approximation of a murder mystery. Call it a lateral move for this unfortunate franchise.

Having left his day job at the Home Depot that got shot to smithereens at the end of the last movie, McCall now drives for Lyft, scanning for trouble—for those in need of some street justice or protection—in his rearview mirror. Early into The Equalizer 2, he makes short, brutal work of some rapist business bros, but not before politely giving them the chance to turn themselves in. (That’s the thing about Mr. Equalizer: He’s tough but fair, and a perfect gentleman, right up until the point he’s snapping your fingers like twigs.) There are enough rough customers in Boston to occupy a whole season of the old TV show, but this being an (overlong) movie, McCall’s episodic good samaritan routine is interrupted by a criminal conspiracy involving a longtime friend and intelligence agency contact (Melissa Leo). The Equalizer 2 unfolds this plot slowly and awkwardly, leaping inefficiently among Boston, Brussels, and Washington, as its somber hero learns what any viewer paying a lick of attention will realize quickly. (Hint: Skyscraper dropped the same twist a week ago.)

The Equalizer 2
Photo: Sony Pictures

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Needlessly protracting the running time is some business involving a Holocaust survivor and a lost painting, as well as the tough-love, surrogate-father bond McCall develops with an artistically gifted teenager (Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders) whose future and innocence are threatened by the siren call of a local gang—the latter a subplot so corny that it could have been pulled from an after-school special. If the previous Equalizer seemed to exist only to feed faceless foes through the meat grinder of McCall’s particular set of skills, the less frequent action of The Equalizer 2 feels almost obligatory. Maybe that’s because Fuqua, who directed Washington in Training Day and also the recent, forgettable remake of The Magnificent Seven, stages gunfights and hand-to-hand bouts with a this-will-do proficiency. His best set piece here—a climax on an abandoned, Martha’s Vineyard-style island community during a massive storm—is stronger in conception than execution.

Washington, who’s been playing stoic men of action almost as long as he’s been honing his actual acting chops, does bring a casual authority and even a touch of gravitas to his role. He has a way of slowing scenes down, of savoring the better-think-twice monologues and loaded advice his character calmly delivers before Equalizing someone. But McCall, the friendly neighborhood Punisher, has little personality, even less dimension, and no character flaws to speak of. He’s a dully virtuous and unstoppable working-class defender, a ruthlessly violent guardian-angel bore. By the end of The Equalizer 2, it’s clear that hiring Denzel to play him is a lot like paying Frank Gehry to design your doghouse: He’ll get the job done, and probably do it really well, but surely his talents could be much better applied to almost any other task?