Somewhat unexpectedly, director Antoine Fuqua and star Denzel Washington’s The Equalizer franchise has become something of a champion of the mid-budget action picture. In an age where gargantuan, behemoth action blockbusters seem hell-bent on ruthlessly and infallibly inflating the world-ending stakes and finances going into these films, The Equalizer 3 is a defiant success.
Not unlike the installments of the John Wick franchise, The Equalizer 3 takes a tried-and-true story, slots in a bankable marquee movie star with gravitas and experience to spare, and throws a bit of old-fashioned movie magic at the whole thing. The result is a nifty little action-thriller that serves as a unique showcase for Fuqua, Washington, and a kind of cinematic storytelling that has become increasingly rare.
TOP 5 THINGS ABOUT “The Equalizer 3”
5. The Lone Gunslinger
The ‘lone gunslinger’ archetype has been a consistent fixture in cinematic pop culture for decades. From the ronin samurai of Akira Kurosawa films (like Seven Samurai or Yojimbo) to the westernized heroes of John Ford (The Searchers) and Sergio Leone films (A Fistful of Dollars), to cable television mainstays of the ’70s like Columbo or The Incredible Hulk, the lonesome wandering hero has remained. And in The Equalizer 3, Fuqua and Washington are tapping directly into this storied tradition in powerful fashion.
The Equalizer television series of the ’80s (which the movie was based on) was, in and of itself, an example of this archetype, but The Equalizer 3 elevates this to another level. Through its Italian setting and Fuqua’s inspired visual choices, such as framing Washington’s Robert McCall character in such stark silhouette for so much of the film, this threequel draws a more direct line back to the aforementioned Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Western ‘man with no name’ trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), which is all too fitting. Rather infamously, A Fistful of Dollars took its story from Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, transplanting it from feudal Japan to the American west. Now, in a strange way, The Equalizer 3 sees Fuqua taking that story and transplanting it to Leone’s home country of Italy, for a modern version all his own.
4. The Anarchic Score
As budgets have ballooned for action films over the years, their musical scores have grown increasingly vanilla. There are absolutely exceptions to this rule (see: Lorne Balfe’s work on the latest Mission: Impossible films) but by and large, as studios look to attain a sense of financial security, music has become a ludicrously sanitized space in which experimentation is frowned upon and the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mentality prevails.
This is why it is obscenely delightful when composer Marcelo Zarvos’ score for The Equalizer 3 kicks in and so heavily features a buzzed-out, distorted guitar riff as its melodic and tone-setting center. In a world full of generic blockbuster action scores being used as temporary fillers in the editing bay of other generic blockbusters, only for composers to then be brought in and essentially asked to mimic those other scores in the safest and most unexciting way possible, making each one sound like everything else, Zarvos’ score sounds more indebted to Jack White. There are more traditional elements to the score (it’s not an all-around trailblazer), but the prominent spotlighting of these artistic flairs and unique techniques makes The Equalizer 3 come alive in ways that modern action blockbusters are rarely allowed to do.
3. A Weak Spot: Extraneous Subplots
Alright, let’s reel things in a bit. Because as much as I did enjoy The Equalizer 3, comparing it so favorably to A Fistful of Dollars probably sets a certain expectation, and sadly, a masterpiece it is not.
The real magic of The Equalizer 3 comes from a kind of creative alchemy achieved between Fuqua, Washington, cinematographer Robert Richardson, and editor Conrad Buff. And when Washington is on-screen, and the entire ludicrously over-qualified creative team is leaning all the way into the ‘lone gunslinger’ idea, it works absurdly well. But when Washington isn’t onscreen, that is much less true.
An entire B-plot in The Equalizer 3 centers on Dakota Fanning’s character and the CIA’s involvement in the storyline, and the entire thing falls flat and feels entirely superfluous. It adds little to the film aside from some flimsy connective tissue to prior installments and post-hoc expository justifications for how Washington’s McCall can, logistically speaking, do what he does. It’s the lone part of the film where the rote nature of Richard Wenk’s script shines through in spades, and it makes the film as a whole feel much weaker and unfocused as a result.
2. Fuqua’s Direction
Getting back on track, though, let’s talk about Antoine Fuqua’s direction here, because it’s amazing. Ever since his critical and commercial breakthrough with Training Day, Fuqua has spent his career as a prolific and robust filmmaking talent. But with The Equalizer 3, Fuqua delivers something quite special.
In teaming up with cinematographer Robert Richardson (the Academy Award-winning DP who has become a go-to visual collaborator for both Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino at various points in his career), Fuqua delivers a stark and meticulously sculpted picture that makes a meal out of every morsel in its storytelling. From their use of strong primary singular light sources, to their implementation of deep focus and wide framing throughout, to the verbose and affecting way in which they capture Washington’s McCall falling in love with his own slice of Italy, it is a gorgeously photographed film whose craft shines through.
1. Denzel Washington
One of the most surprising things about this film is Denzel Washington’s performance. As McCall, Washington carefully sculpts out a living, breathing human being who is a far-cry from what audiences might think this character is going to be from the on-paper story details alone. Instead of a stoic, unfeeling depiction of machismo, Washington’s character is instead routinely portrayed as distinctly left-of-center and in a very idiosyncratic, unique fashion. The result is astounding: a lead performance so off-the-cuff, so unexpectedly adept at cutting to the bone of the material that it undeniably makes everything around it that much better.
Again, the film is at its best when tapping into this creative alchemy and when Fuqua and co. are leaning into the ‘lone gunslinger’ trappings at the foundation of the script, but Washington is deliberately recontextualizing them through the lens of his off-kilter and rhythmically resonant work. The result is something unique and genuinely exciting to witness.
The Equalizer 3 isn’t always great, but when it works, it works. It’s beyond exciting to see craftsmen and artisans as experienced and talented as Fuqua, Washington, Richardson, Buff, and Zarvos all coming together to deliver a work that isn’t afraid to push up against the very perceived boundaries of its genre.
In a great many ways, it is a Trojan Horse of a film, utilizing the trappings and story beats of a stock action film to inventively work within those parameters and overtly tie its legacy back to the very roots from which the whole thing came with the ‘lone gunslinger’ ideology.