The older man as action lead sub-genre arguably kicked off with 2008’s Taken. In fact, it has represented the majority of Liam Neeson’s career ever since. As with any genre, results can be mixed, and mileage with this type of film will vary. In general, the weaker examples are just a scenario introduced – a commuter train, a flight – around which to hang some action sequences. Often, any attempt to give the lead personal issues or a private life feel very perfunctory: did anyone care about Bryan’s personal life, or his BBQs with his friends in the aforementioned trilogy?
The other issue we saw with the Taken trilogy was a lack of commitment to the R-rating. Cut for a PG-13/12A cinema release, scenes shot for the more adult rating would be hacked to pieces such that in the second film it looks, genuinely, as though one of the bad guys died by sitting down (the nail he was impaled on cut from the wide release). There is nothing wrong with a more family-based action film, but only if it is designed and shot with that in mind.
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This brings us to the Equalizer series. Denzel Washington has been collaborating on these with director Antoine Fuqua since 2014, after having won an Academy Award working with him in 2001’s Training Day. As with all films of this type, they are not for everyone, but they have tended to avoid some of pitfalls referred to above. First, Washington’s Robert McCall is more of an observer of life than the driver of the stories. This means that although we do get character development, the plots are driven by his personality and reactions to events, more than the events of his life, or any family or personal motivations.
This means story comes first, and it means also that writers and filmmakers do not have to waste time with areas of story – such as personal life – in which they clearly have no real interest. Second, these films commit to their harder cut. There is no confusion that there are hard hitting, violent action films for adults, and there is no attempt to soften the blows to access wider markets. Finally, McCall has a defining characteristic that is not based around violence or fighting skills: that of generosity. His life is about helping people: the series is, effectively, what Paddington would be, if the bear was really good at fighting, and had secret service background.
The third in the series begins with a prologue set in Sicily. Robert McCall kills what appears at first to be a local wine maker, after having cut through swathes of his operatives, found to be part of a huge smuggling operation that has links to mainland Camorra (what we know as the Mafia). Escaping but badly hurt, Robert is found by local Carabinieri officer, who takes him to the local town of Altamonte (a fictional town, positioned near Naples and resembling such coastal towns as Positano). There he is nursed back to health by Enzo (Remo Girone), a veteran doctor who has looked after the health of the residents of the town for decades.
As McCall gets stronger, he finds himself starting to love life in the town, enjoying getting to know the locals, such as cafe owner, Aminah (Gaia Scodellaro), and Gio (Eugenio Mastrandrea), the police officer who saved his life. At the same time, he has the concern of reporting his Sicilian findings to the CIA, through Emma Collins (Dakota Fanning) in whom he has great trust, for reasons that will become clear as the film develops. Collaborating with her is Agent Frank Conroy, where they will both track the drug smuggling to an organised crime operation that has big plans for Altamonte.
This group, led by Vincent Quaranta (Andrea Scarduzio), and assisted in Altamonte by his bother Marco (Andrea Dodero), are brutally attacking residents of the town, both for the traditional tribute payments but also, in some cases, to frighten them into compliance with whatever plans they have for the town. McCall, having been almost provoked into killing a child in Sicily is really starting to feel the blood on his hands from this kind of work, and is simply looking for a peaceful life helping people, but in his world, helping people often involves his unique and violent skill set.
The Equalizer 3 does feel a little more forced than its two predecessors. With his visit back home at the end of the last film, it felt like the character had come full circle; he had a comfortable niche in life, driving people around and noticing ways to help them from conversations he either had or overheard. With this third instalment, we pick up on the now formula of the prologue mission, but it feels less like something Robert McCall would be doing at this stage. That said, his motivation for all of his decisions is addressed by the time the final credits roll, leaving a satisfying tale nowhere near as perfunctory as its set-up suggests.
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The decision to move the action out of the United States is a sound one, with this entry feeling fresher for the new visuals, captured expertly by long-term Tarantino cinematographer Robert Richardson. Locations are pretty; supporting characters – although as thin as is usual to these types of film – are all charming enough to make you believe our lead would come to care about them; and the action is still shot with an efficiency that matches the style of the character, whilst not skimping on the blood, which walks the fine line between impactful and prurient. Put simply, this trilogy has been a consistent pleasure, with three great lead performances in a row form a legendary actor who has the habit of giving this type of fare the same attention that he would to any amount of Oscar-bait. It does not transcend its genre, but it is a fine example of its type.
The Equalizer 3 is out now in cinemas.