“Do you know who I am?!” That’s what a menacing thug bellows. “I know what you are,” replies Robert McCall (Denzel Washington). Former government assassin. Current freelance equalizer. A counterbalance to bullies and their behavior.
Sometimes action/crime/thrillers cross the line into the art film world. Director Antoine Fuqua has clearly chosen that path, as he meticulously crafts the third installment of a revenge franchise that’s garnered $192M and $190M for the first and second chapters respectively. No offense, the first two were nothing to look at. However, this endeavor goes for the optics, which only makes the storybook European setting look more alluring.
The place is an evocative, old-world town on the Amalfi Coast, in Southern Italy. A small village set against the steep Lattari Mountains, which, from a distance, make the houses and buildings look like toys. The footage’s color is undersaturated (Robert Richardson: Hugo, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) and still looks surprisingly rich. Evocatively highlighting the beautiful environs, from village streets to lux mansion bedrooms, dark allies and homey cafes. Any comparisons, aesthetically, to Italian director Marco Bellocchio’s films (e.g., Traitor) is warranted. This version of his Italy looks the same. The art directors, production designer (Naomi Shohan, Winter’s Tale), set decorator (Chiara Baldacci) and costume designer (Giovanni Casalnuovo) set tone, style, place and lifestyle like they’ve created a mural. Italy envelopes you.
In an absolutely riveting beginning, McCall settles a score with some drug dealers on a farm in Sicily. He convalesces in a small town on the coast. Befriended by Enzo (Remo Girone, Ford v Ferrari) a doctor, Gio (Eugenio Mastrandrea) the local Carabinieri (cop), Angelo (Daniele Perrone) a fish market owner and the stunningly beautiful, mixed-race café owner Aminah (Gaia Scodellaro). The American interloper surrounds himself with a new extended family. McCall: “This is where I belong.” So, he’s particularly enraged when he witnesses a local Mafia family terrorizing his friends. Dr. Enzo: “The Mafia they’re like cancer. No cure.”
Marco (Andrea Dodero) is the henchman who collects money from and menacingly assaults shop owners. He’s a lacky for his brother Vincent (Andrea Scarduzio, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One), a ruthless, ambitious crimelord involved in international drug trade. McCall casually calls CIA agent Emma Collins (Dakota Fanning), and tips her off. The dealing of narcotics is connected to Jihad money and a bigger scheme worthy of a global law enforcement investigation.
Fans of this action series beware. What you’ve seen previously doesn’t compare. Visually, The Equalizer 3 is stunning, most of the time. Plotwise, the layered, secondary storylines in this crime/thriller go deep enough to resemble a Mario Puzo (The Godfather) book. Add in well-staged and choreographed violence that isn’t as artistic as John Wick: Chapter 4, but arty in its own way. Plus, a lowkey style that feels like Matteo Garrone’s 2008 crime/dra Gomora, and it’s official. This USA-born franchise feels reinvented. Clearly Fuqua, the producers and production team are hoping viewers like their attention to aesthetics. Their dream may come true.
In the past, Fuqua has displayed graphic violence in all kinds of ways: music video-ish (Replacement Killers); generic (Olympus Has Fallen) and alarmingly graphic (Training Day). This time an attention to detail, showing restraint and focusing on captivating images ups his game. The pacing seems so deliberate (editor Conrad Buff, Titanic). The ominous music (Marcelo Zarvos, Flamin’ Hot), with heavy dirge-like bass and low screeching sounds, cries out like it’s warning that death is imminent. Collectively, it all works.
The center of attention is a character setting things right for those who can’t do it themselves. A gun-packing, guardian angel with a keen ability to outsmart the most cunning aggressors. That’s the persona screenwriter Richard Wenk (Jack Reacher: Never go Back) has adapted from a 1980s TV series. That’s the protagonist Washington has turned into an iconic action film hero. He doesn’t yell, he growls. Rarely breaks a sweat and kills with certain grace. Nothing over the top, very studied and poised. Yet so riveting.
The romance with Aminah is winsome because Scodellaro never overplays her hand. Neither does Mastrandrea, Girone or Perrone. On the other hand, Dodero as the sociopathic collector of protection money and Scarduzio as his older brother, swing for the rafters. Mean beyond redemption. Unbridled hubris in need of a smackdown. Enough to incur the audience’s rath.
This isn’t the Godfather. Nor is Fuqua Martin Scorsese. He is an action genre film director who’s dipped his toes into the art film world. Hence, taking the final installment of a generic action series to its ultimate glory. Something more. Something to remember. A postcard from the Amalfi coast where an American hit man tries to clear out the garbage that stinks up the streets.
You know who he is. You know what he is. The Equalizer.