The Equalizer 3 review: A baggy, superbly violent farewell

Denzel Washington in The Equalizer 3Sony Pictures

Denzel Washington’s art is death, but The Equalizer 3 isn’t quite his masterpiece, bidding adieu to his not-so-reluctant vigilante with wanton, awesome savagery and a weak-sauce story.

“On a scale from one to 10, that’s a two,” Robert McCall tells some poor mafia enforcer as he presses his thumb into their median nerve like it’s silly putty. “That’s a three… you don’t want me to go to four. I go to four, you sh*t on yourself.”

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This is the secret sauce to Antoine Fuqua’s franchise: the knuckle-whitening simplicity of McCall’s skillset – which then tees up barbaric, hysterical bloodshed – and Washington’s icy delivery. The ease with which he flips the switch from simpatico everyman to killer is inimitable; that all-listening, all-seeing, wired-in composure that puts him a step, punch, and gunshot ahead of his enemies.

The Equalizer 3 is a visceral banquet, pitting Washington’s guardian angel against waves of nasty b*stards whose horrid demises are well-earned – if only it kept things that simple. Instead, yawn-worthy, bordering-on-troubling context for its baddies stops the threequel from reaching the rewatchable heights of its predecessors.

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The Equalizer 3 delivers gore from the off

We open on a Sicilian vineyard that may as well be the Somme; men lay slumped against walls, with the detritus of their brains splattered against the walls and cleavers lodged into their faces as flies buzz around their remains. The boss leaves his grandson in the car while he goes inside to assess the damage, and the suspicion grows that this is some sort of mafia origin story flashback for our villain – but as he turns a corner into the cellar, we see McCall sitting calmly as he’s surrounded by henchmen.

“They should have let me in,” he says, not quite to anyone but himself; remember, this is a man tortured by his addiction and aptitude for death. “You took something that didn’t belong to you, I’m here to take it back,” he adds, before giving everyone nine seconds to comply. If McCall tells you a time, you best run: within that precise window, he dispatches every goon in the room; he jams his gun into one’s eye and shoots the other multiple times in the head… through his head, while another gets shot in the arse with a double-barrelled shotgun as he drags himself across the dust-and-blood concrete.

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This is just the beginning, and we won’t ruin too much of how he ends up in a picturesque, coastal town in the south of Italy – add Altamonte to the fictional locations list along with Val Verde. McCall has always found peace in the minutiae of life; the way he unfolds and places a napkin on a table, the exact distance a cup of tea, book, and spoon must be from the edge. He finds a kindred spirit in the fabric of this place and starts seeing it as the light beyond the black gates – but its people live in constant fear of the mafia and its money-collecting enforcers who won’t hesitate to burn down a shop if they don’t pay up.

“One day somebody does something unspeakable to someone else… someone you hardly knew, and you… do something about it because you can.”

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A visual and aural step-down

For all the slickness of Washington’s choreography and physical presence – he’s an embarrassing force of nature for the younger, nameless inferior stars out there – Robert Richardson’s dark, shadowy cinematography feels cheaper this time around, and Fuqua’s direction doesn’t feel as inspired. There’s nothing on the level of that barbed-wire-hanging, nail-gun-crucifying Home Mart finale, nor the first sequel’s hurricane climax that basically turned McCall into a slasher villain. Don’t misunderstand: the action is joyous, but even the most wince-worthy moments start to fade from memory.

Denzel Washington in The Equalizer 3Sony Pictures

Marcelo Zarvos’ score has a pulse-racing, grungy motif any time the mafiosos cruise into town, but the absence of Harry Gregson-Williams’ grin-inducing Equalizer theme is deeply felt – also, remember when the first film needle-dropped the likes of Moby’s New Dawn Fades and Zack Hemsey’s Vengeance? These music choices fortified its impenetrable B-movie charm – without them, the feeling of self-seriousness creeps in when we should be having more fun.

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The 2014 film is the first time anyone seemed to have the juice to rival Washington’s long partnership with Tony Scott (funnily enough, Gregson-Williams also composed their best movie together, Man on Fire), and while the second entry just about squeaks it, this has a different energy; nastier, quieter, less-considered and engineered to please those seeking McCall’s sadism rather than the whole Equalizer package.

Man on Fire reunion is a delight

We’d never tire of watching Washington sizing someone up before going into full-blown assassin mode, but some of the best scenes focus on his reunion with Man on Fire co-star Dakota Fanning, now all-grown-up and playing a CIA officer who tracks McCall down after the events in Sicily. Their crackling chemistry is just as potent as it was nearly 20 years ago, and even for an Oscar winner, there’s a visible sense of ease in Washington when he shares the screen with Fanning; small smiles that don’t feel scripted, a current of giddiness that’s a vicarious delight for the audience.

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Dakota Fanning and Denzel Washington in The Equalizer 3 castSony Pictures

The supporting cast are fine, for the most part; Gaia Scodellaro plays an affectionate cafe owner who grows fond of McCall and brings him out of his shell, and the actress’ warmth is affecting, while Remo Girone plays a genial local doctor whose rapport with McCall grows more familiar and enjoyable.

The baddies are a broad disappointment. Led by Andrea Scarduzio’s Vincent, they dole out despicable warning-shot punishment – in one scene, they hang a wheelchair-bound grandpa out of a window – and while that’s scary in the world of the movie, it’s hollow for us. Marton Csokas’ Nikolai was comically ruthless, but his drive and lack of mercy were effectively conveyed – and crucially, he was a threat. Here, McCall dispatches anyone and everyone without much of a challenge; none of them are familiar with his game, so why should we respect theirs?

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The movie tries to get us to invest in the mob’s dealings with a “jihadi drug” that’s lining the pockets of terrorists – yeah, we don’t really get it either – but as soon as it falls out of Washington’s orbit, the whole thing starts to fall apart. Mercifully, at just shy of 110 minutes, we don’t spend too much time away from McCall – but it’s enough that it feels like a problem by the end.

The Equalizer 3 review score: 3/5

Denzel Washington’s threequelizer is an all-you-can-stomach buffet of violent delights and ends, and an affectionate goodbye to a modern B-movie legend.

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The Equalizer 3 is in cinemas now. Check out the rest of our coverage below:

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