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The Equalizer 3 (2023)

After a disappointing summer blockbuster season with the lackluster performance of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (2023), you’d be forgiven for wondering if it was time to give up all hope of a box office action hit. Well, we’ve got a tip for you. Never count Denzel Washington out!  Denzel, now 68-years-old, is amongst a crop of Hollywood’s elite leading men who are still kicking ass in their 50s (Will, Smith, Jason Statham), 60s, (Tom Cruise), 70s (Liam Neeson, Sylvester Stallone, and Arnold Schwarzenegger), and even 80s (Harrison Ford). Of course, the patriarchal nature of society-at-large is why Hollywood still assumes that audiences yearn to see men old enough to be grandfathers (and not grandmothers) kicking ass on screen. But we’ll save that conversation for another day.

Washington has teamed up again with the talented director Antoine Fuqua with whom he partnered on The Equalizer (2014) and The Equalizer 2 (2018), as well as his Oscar-winning turn as maniacal cop Alonzo in Training Day (2001). But The Equalizer 3 is special for another reunion, bringing together Washington with Dakota Fanning with whom he starred in Tony Scott’s Man on Fire (2004) as John W. Creasy, bodyguard to Fanning’s (then 9 years old) Lupita Ramos.

The movie series in which Washington now stars was inspired by the 1980s CBS TV series starring Edward Woodward (1985-89). Like Woodward before him, Washington plays Robert McCall, a retired intelligence agent who combines a quiet, introverted nature, sophisticated technological knowledge, and a profound sense of right and wrong. As McCall articulates early in The Equalizer 3, he has a problem with bad people. Did we mention he also has a set of lethal physical skills that allow him to contain and kill the bad guys with speed, creativity, and precision? In fact, much of the intrigue of McCall is the way that Fuqua and Washington depict his sensory, temporal, and spatial understandings of who and what is around him to contain and kill his enemies. But what is special about Robert McCall is that he is a reluctant hero. Indeed, withdrawn from life to a large degree after the death of his beloved wife (who we only see once in a photograph in The Equalizer 2), he is a caring co-worker, compassionate neighbour, and loyal friend, almost despite himself.

Where The Equalizer and The Equalizer 2 were largely set in Boston, Massachusetts, The Equalizer 3 takes us to Italy where the splendor and majesty of Naples becomes one of the movie’s characters. To Fuqua’s credit, the sights, sounds, and culture of Naples illuminate the film providing a naturally glorious and artistically rich backdrop for McCall’s latest journey to balance the scales. Why is he in Italy? Interestingly, the film does not fully disclose this until the last frames, but as usual it has to do with a quest that began when he took it upon himself to right a wrong inflicted upon someone he barely knows. This need leads him to a winery in Sicily where he discovers something bizarre. The Italian owner is importing wine from Syria. Of course, McCall soon discovers that the wine is not really wine, but a cover for the importation of deadly street drugs that connects the vineyard to the deep and deadly tentacles of the mafia.

The movie opens with McCall in a seemingly impossible position, seated in a wine cellar, surrounded by the mob boss’s armed henchmen. But what is impossible for others is not for McCall. Within seconds, all the criminals are dead, and McCall departs the estate with a bag full of money (not for himself, by the way), leaving behind millions of dollars in currency and drugs.

But in a rare slip up, McCall is shot in the back by a child, a near deadly mistake which leads him to the home of the kindly doctor Enzo Arisio (played by Remo Girone) who removes the bullet, saves his life, and gives him a safe place to stay as he heals. In a pivotal scene shortly after his arrival, Arisio asks McCall if he is a good man or a bad man, to which he responds that he does not know. But it was definitely a good cop, Gio Bonucci (played by Eugenio Mastrandrea), who discovered McCall in a state near death in his car and it is Bonucci, dedicated family man and civil servant, who seems to be one of the few police officers who is not on the take.

As McCall regains his strength, he sheds some of his stony exterior allowing the locals to get to see the sharp mind and tender heart behind the stoicism. McCall too becomes attached to the locals, buying fish from the local market and drinking tea at the local café where the waitress Aminah (played by Gaia Scodellaro) slowly draws him out. It is these attachments that make it impossible for him to look away from the corruption that is under his nose, in the form of hot-headed thugs who terrorize the local business owners, McCall’s new friends, for protection money.

While Fanning’s CIA Agent, Emma Collins, enters the action through an anonymous call made by McCall to place a tip about the vineyard, we soon see that the thuggery in Naples is connected to the drugs and money in Sicily, which are all underpinning a larger terrorist plot. Collins’ question, “why me?” gets answered later in the film, and no, their connection is not random. When McCall defends his new friends from the local gangs by disposing of the threat, he catches the attention of Vincent Quaranta (played by Andrea Scarduzio). As with all good mafia bosses, Quaranta has a dedicated love for his family and a sociopathic disdain for everyone else’s. (In one scene, seeking to force tenants from a building, his men hang an elderly man by crashing his decrepit body through an upper floor window and he orders them to leave the dead body on display to intimidate the other tenants into fleeing.) So, this is who McCall must face now, since in disposing of the local gang he has inadvertently killed Quaranta’s hot-headed baby brother.

What is exhilarating and intriguing about McCall is not just why he kills (always reluctantly) but how he kills (methodically, clinically, and with gusto once provoked). But it is always for others, their protection, their safety, their futures. When he finally takes care of Quaranta, it is in the kingpin’s palatial home on the same night he issued a threat to return to kill McCall in a crowded street in front of terrified townspeople. What is therapeutic and cathartic about The Equalizer movies is seeing horrible people – men who rape, steal, manipulate, kill, torture, and terrorize – brought to justice in spectacular ways typically mere seconds after they have made threats or harmed people. Indeed, McCall is creative when he kills, often setting his digital watch to estimate how long it will take him to kill several armed men with a corkscrew, gun, glass fragment, or fireplace poker. That said, if you can’t stand gore, this movie is obviously not for you! But if you are a fan of action movies, The Equalizer 3 has a strong narrative, an excellent cast, and stunning scenery. Unlike Tom Cruise or Liam Neeson, Washington rarely runs and there are no elaborate chase scenes. His killing is planned, methodical, technical, masterful, and unexpected (by the bad guys), in part because he looks so normal. His ability to defeat his enemies is not about brawn and weapons, but about his brain, skill, and experience.

And as for the good doctor’s question of McCall, “are you a bad man or a good man?”, when McCall later questions Dr. Arisio about why he allowed him to stay in his home although he answered the question with “I don’t know,” Arisio informs him plainly that only a good man would answer the question in that way.