There’s something disarming in the way Denzel Washington’s inscrutable score-settler Robert McCall disarms his adversaries in the Equalizer movies: often, there’s the violent path—guns blazing, or sometimes inserted into eye sockets (eew!)—but just as often, there’s a calm before the storm, usually after he announces what will happen in 10 seconds. My favorite moment in Equalizer 3 comes when a bad guy sits down next to the sangfroid McCall at a Sicilian restaurant and stirs up trouble. McCall calmly snatches the guy’s wrist and presses the median nerve, instructing him on “pain compliance”: “That’s a pain level of three,” he informs the writhing Sicilian. “You don’t want to feel a four…”
If creative pain administration is your thing, Equalizer 3 (who needs silly chapter titles when “3” will do?) serves up an abbodanza of mayhem, with McCall now relocated to the cliffside town of Altamonte in the Old Country. The former intelligence agent and ex-Marine conveniently speaks Italian, or at least is learning, and soon finds—after taking out a villa of bad guys for an undisclosed offense and then taking a bullet—that he likes this little community of Italian fishmongers and espresso sellers.
McCall, of course, prefers a cup of Lipton tea, and we watch him spread out a number of paper napkins at each sitting, much to the amusement of local waitress Aminah (Gaia Scodellaro). He’s a neat and tidy man, but he leaves a pretty messy tableaux of dead bodies in his wake. Indeed, the killing in Antoine Fuqua’s third installment (the finale, natch, as everything now is a trilogy) is particularly gruesome, shot in those blood-dripping monochrome tones that suggest a moral reckoning is upon our hero.
In fact, Equalizer 3 exists in the same vigilante space as something like Ridley Scott’s Hannibal, also set in Italy, in which classical Italian settings are the tapestry for giddily creative murder and mayhem. You can trace it back to Jacobean revenge dramas and the French Grand Guignol “theater of death,” but here Fuqua’s little playlet is set against a backdrop of beautiful palazzos and ancient Roman fountains, where Italian kids take a refreshing sip between rounds of cobblestone football.
Yes, McCall loves this little place, and—after two movies of reaching out to help people while simultaneously and systematically slaughtering anyone who gets in his way—he seems like he might like to settle down.
But he has some business first, including dropping a dime to CIA agent Emma Collins (Dakota Fanning) about a supply of smuggled drugs back at the villa where he got shot. He also has to contend with a ruthless batch of tattooed Mafiosi that includes Camorra crime head Vincent (Andrea Scarduzio) and his minions. Vincent and his brother like to terrorize the locals, shaking them down for protection money and just being real jackasses.
McCall wants them to leave, and proceeds to, er, instruct them in pain compliance one by one.
In previous outings, Washington emerged from Boston, where he was helping some people out there while working at a hardware store, which supplied many creative tools of death indeed. The second Equalizer featured Pedro Pascal playing against type as the bad guy, set in Turkey. The finale brings us to a place that should be heaven, but as we know from the last White Lotus, Sicily is full of intrigues and death. Fuqua loves his Italian cliffside locales, and we get immersed in Altamonte pretty quickly; it’s only the killing that seems a bit formulaic at times (where’s a Home Depot when you need one?). McCall is often shown backlit by streetlamps, a mist hanging in the air, walking slowly over cobblestones now flowing with gray-tinged rivulets of blood. (Come to think of it, that noir mood was very evident in the old ‘80s TV series Fuqua’s trilogy is inspired by.)
Washington, as always, is completely watchable. Even though he’s playing a one-dimensional killing machine, he brings gravitas to his every gesture. Maybe he’s just getting too old for this sh*t. We don’t care. We want him to prevail in this entertaining fiction in which a single vigilante can somehow undo evil and rid us of it, simply by pressing the right nerve.
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Equalizer 3 is showing Sept. 13, distributed by Columbia Pictures.