The Stew Review: Denzel Washington brings moral grounding to Equalizer 3′s violence

This image released by Sony Pictures Entertainment shows Denzel Washington in a scene from...
This image released by Sony Pictures Entertainment shows Denzel Washington in a scene from "The Equalizer 3."(Stefano Montesi/Sony Pictures Entertainment via AP)
Published: Sep. 6, 2023 at 10:42 AM CDT|Updated: Sep. 6, 2023 at 10:45 AM CDT
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TYLER, Texas (KLTV) - Now a full trilogy, the Equalizer films present a fascinating moral juxtaposition.

Robert McCall is a very violent man. He kills people with ruthless, unerring efficiency, to the point where some have described past entries as a sort of reverse-horror film, wherein the unstoppable killer is the hero and the largely hapless victims are the villains. What dawned on me as I walked out of the third film last night, however, is that these movies are basically the physical manifestation of Jules Winfield’s version of Ezekiel 25:17.

The notion of a man forced by his sense of justice into performing acts of violence in defense of innocents isn’t a new concept. But the execution of it in these films is made palatable and even exceptional given that it is buttressed by the moral decency, fortitude and conviction of Denzel Washington’s on-screen persona. A persona that, let’s be clear, is what’s really the driving force here beyond anything the script says or does.

That McCall now (albeit briefly) wonders if he’s a good man feels somewhat inevitable at this point in the franchise. On the verge of death, he’s rescued by the residents of a seaside village in Sicily. None but the doctor and local policeman question his origin or past actions. He is, instead, slowly welcomed and embraced by the community as he questions whether he can truly leave his old life behind. It’s possible, but he invariably gets drawn into one more fight only he is capable of winning.

It’s difficult to think of another action film franchise that so starkly puts its protagonist at odds against what we know he’s there to do. Even John Wick, reluctant though he is to re-enter his underworld of violence, has more of an emotional reaction to the body count. What’s even more interesting, though, is that it is this very dichotomy that gives The Equalizer films their appeal.

Violence for Robert McCall is never a first resort. A warning is always given before he metes out justice. And yet the films perpetually depict violence as a necessity, brutally so. The third film’s violence is the series at its most brutal. There’s less of it than in past films, but when it erupts, the results are notably more visceral. No one ever dies a simple death. Quickly, sure, but rarely so simply via a knife or gunshot. You never see Robert McCall smile as he performs these acts, but the films themselves understand that it is incredibly satisfying to see these cartoonishly horrible men face cartoonishly brutal ends. Robert McCall doesn’t enjoy it, but we do. Though you also get the sense that McCall would almost certainly look down on us for doing so.

But back to the Bible. In Pulp Fiction, Samuel L. Jackson’s character takes more than a few liberties with the recitation of this verse. While the original text (translations notwithstanding) certainly has in there lines about striking down with great vengeance and knowing that his name is the Lord, there’s absolutely nothing about the tyranny of evil men, shepherding the weak and being a brother’s keeper. But it is these tenets by which Washington’s Robert McCall lives his life. They serve as his moral center, the beacon of light within a soul that, in this film at least, he is no longer certain is righteous. It’s an interesting dichotomy, especially for a movie franchise three films deep. For Robert McCall, being his brother’s keeper and striking down the tyranny of evil men means being a staggeringly efficient killer. He encourages everyone around him to be better as he shoulders the burden of necessary violence.

None of this would work without Washington in the role. As mentioned earlier, it’s Washington’s innate decency and moral certitude that grounds the character, but it’s an essential ingredient because without it McCall becomes a psychotic murderer. But as one of cinema’s most inherently likable actors, we go along with it. We know he wants peace for himself and this village, and if this is the only means to achieve it, so be it. Peace is on the horizon, but it’s going to take McCall wading through blood to get there.

All in all this makes for a very satisfying cap to the character and his path. I’m not sure I’d ever have pegged a movie remake of a 1980s network television show to ultimately inspire such a moral and conceptual clash, but here we are. Hopefully Robert McCall finally gets to enjoy his tea in peace.