Just who is the Equalizer? Despite a hit TV show in the 1980s and another with Queen Latifah still running, that title has become synonymous with Denzel Washington, who returns as government-assassin-turned-vigilante Robert McCall. Billed as the final chapter in a trilogy, “The Equalizer 3” sees McCall finding community in a picturesque part of Italy and being forced to protect its people from the mafia. The film also reteams Washington with director Antoine Fuqua for the fifth time (following “Training Day,” “The Magnificent Seven” and the two previous installments), and their comfort with one another ensures a seamless action movie that might not attract new fans, but should play well to those already fond of this franchise.
Fuqua throws the audience directly into the action. The camera follows a man as he walks through a building strewn with bodies, knives and bullets jutting out of them. McCall must be close by, a point reinforced by Marcelo Zarvos’ quietly alarming score. Though McCall manages to eliminate nearly all of his enemies once again, he does get hurt, saved by a kind policeman (Eugenio Mastrandrea) who takes him to a small-town doctor instead of a hospital.
As McCall recuperates, he makes connections with the locals: a flirty cafe owner, a fish seller who won’t let him pay, even a priest. Before long, he begins to relax and think of this place and people as his community. However, his trained spy eyes notice what’s lurking beneath this friendly surface — namely, that the mafia has a hold on these lovely people, controlling them with threats and extortion. The vigilante in him wakes up, and he proceeds to protect his new friends.
There’s more to the mafia backstory that involves an international conspiracy of drug money financing terrorists, so McCall enlists the help of a young CIA operative (Dakota Fanning). Despite these complications, the script — by returning screenwriter Richard Wenk — keeps things simple enough and repeats the plot revelations to make it easier on the audience. It’s always clear who the bad guys are: men who are just as violent as McCall. Additionally, the screenplay manages to convey how McCall charms the townspeople without becoming cloying or overtly earnest.
Washington holds the screen like the popular star he is. It’s hard not to root for his characters. Even at the all-media screening, there was cheering when he taunted one of his enemies, and when the bad guys got what they deserve. Beyond the righteous action and visceral violence, it’s Washington’s swagger and charisma that compels. His face and voice, his distinctive walk, his trademark gestures — the smirk and pursed lips before he takes action — are so recognizable and familiar that this journey through Italy feels like a visit with a benevolent but ruthless friend.
This time, he even gets to speak Italian and show a different side of McCall. True to formula, the movie gives him a chance to mentor a younger person. This time it’s Fanning’s spy. Their scenes together have a familial undertone, even if they are supposed to be strangers. The actors have worked together before (in 2004’s “Man on Fire”), and Fanning brings out Washington’s humorous side, as their time together becomes a short respite from the fury elsewhere.
Like its two predecessors, “The Equalizer 3” demands a strong stomach. There’s violence aplenty, loud bullets, body impalement and maiming. Some of it is cruel but draped in a veil of good intentions so earnest, its purpose is never questioned. There’s even a well-staged “Spartacus” moment in the town square where everybody comes together to support McCall, making it easy to accept, even applaud, when the bad guys are sadistically dispatched.
Fuqua orchestrates the action with propulsive style. Some of the visual motifs might be obvious — blood running into red wine — but it works. Collaborating with DP Robert Richardson, he takes advantage of the Italian setting to give the film a spacious feel. The creative team knows their ace in Washington, showing him off in dark and shadowy compositions, as if he were an avenging angel from the heavens. Zarvos’ music has two modes: threateningly ominous or loudly throbbing. It’s all very effective, like so much of the film, delivering exactly what’s expected. No more and no less.
Washington tends to alternate between action movies and prestige Oscar projects. While this film and others like it might not win him awards or critical raves, they remain watchable and entertaining, aided in no small part by the directors in charge. Both Fuqua and the late Tony Scott (with whom Washington also made five films) are able to deliver well-made adrenaline jolts. And Washington never phones it in. He’s always immensely present, knowing what his audience wants and giving it to them in true movie star fashion.