The Equalizer 3 and What It Means to Be a Man in 2023
The Equalizer franchise is a hyper-violent testosterone-fest where men solve problems with fists and guns. In the 80s, Robert McCall was played by Edward Woodward, who fit the part of a retired soldier who took out his frustrations with the government by offering his services for free. By services, I mean beating up thugs. It wasn’t quite as violent, but the idea is the same: right the wrongs for the little guy, a little (or a lot of) vigilante justice for entertainment and viewer catharsis. Denzel Washington is turning 69 this year. He’s lost a step or two, but his presence is just as imposing and his Robert McCall is just as violent. In the trailer, McCall drives a pistol into a man’s skull through his eye socket in a scene so gratuitously violent it would make Tarantino cream his pants.
The original Equalizer took to pro bono vigilantism because he’d grown disillusioned by his former employers’ disregard for helpless citizens. It helped to be comfortably wealthy (he drove around in a Jaguar and came home to a fancy apartment) in retirement so he could run around beating people up for free. As memes go, men would rather turn to vigilantism and break a few skulls than go to therapy. Woodward’s McCall had daddy issues and was estranged from his son (Cobra Kai’s William Zabka), and over the course of four seasons, viewers might have picked up that McCall’s brand of violent altruism was a coping mechanism for lifelong trauma.
Denzel’s McCall is more of the same, dispensing justice in small, bloody doses while unsuccessfully trying to live a quiet life. It’s old school action hero, a lawless Western in a contemporary setting, if a little more quiet and barbaric than the overblown spectacle of today’s blockbusters. McCall doesn’t think twice about killing bad guys, which is a luxury none of us have, even if we were capable of it. It’s pure fiction and it’s intended to grant audiences the satisfaction of seeing justice dispensed in a way that doesn’t happen in real life. But it still feels wrong.
In the Philippines, particularly, the injustice feels systemic and organized crime like the mafia isn’t as prominent. Sometimes, in fact, it feels like organized crime and the government are one and the same, so seeing McCall dispense justice makes one wonder if there was ever any way The Equalizer would tackle the greater themes of institutionalized oppression. But director Antoine Fuqua, who has helmed all three films in the franchise, downplays the notion.
“No, not for me,” he says, bluntly, “Not at all. I think that it's more about just helping individuals with their issues one person at a time, you know. With Ralphie in the first one, he was trying to give the kid some confidence in himself, so it's not just going and beating someone up. It's really about helping people in any way you can. Like the old man in The Equalizer 2, he just got the painting back for him. So sometimes it's as simple as that. To help people.”
But generally, Robert McCall helps people by killing other people. The Equalizer 3 opens with an entire villa of brutally murdered people and although context for the bloodbath is given as the story unfolds, there’s never any attempt to humanize any of the bad guys. It’s easier that way, after all. By painting all the villains with the broad stroke of irredeemability, it makes their gruesome deaths easier to swallow. It’s a formula played to perfection: make some characters extremely nice and sympathetic, such as a kindly fish vendor who welcomes Robert with open arms and then have the bad guys destroy his livelihood and beat him to within an inch of his life. It’s meant to get you angry enough to justify seeing Robert mutilate the thugs with clinical efficiency.
But it’s a tired, old response that only exacerbates the problem. Robert’s only solution is to kill. Men turning to violence is the entire plot of The Equalizer. But it’s 2023 and by now we should already know how unhealthy this entire trope is. Where does this leave Robert McCall? “I don't know. That's a good question,” Fuqua admits.
“I think you have to stay true to the material, whatever that is,” he muses, “I think you have to stay true to who you are as a filmmaker as you make the film. You know, from what you understand the concept of what a man is. I'm still learning. I think we're all evolving, right? (and finding out) what that means. And I think you have to approach movies that way. You know, all the dilemmas or the pitfalls of it, all the tropes.”
“We have to deal with them all and we can do them in movies in a beautiful way to sort of help us try to get an understanding — what does that even mean anymore, you know, to be a man, right? So I think the future is open for interpretation. And I think the filmmakers have to stay true to the material and be honest about that particular character. Whatever it is, I think people will appreciate the honesty of the character and not put it in a box. To say that's a man or not a man is just the character.”
The Equalizer feels like the product of an era where men were expected to take matters into their own hands, where jamming objects into their skulls and breaking their bones was supposed to feel good. It doesn’t. It isn’t supposed to, anyway, and Robert’s dispensation of justice feels empty rather than satisfying and Fuqua knows it. At some point, after a near brush with death, Robert questions himself and wonders if he’s a bad guy or a good guy. Clearly, he’s the hero, but he also does very, very bad things and as Fuqua said, that’s just the character.
Robert McCall has his brand of justice, but Fuqua knows it isn’t the right way to go about things. “You know, I grew up in a tough neighborhood and I saw bullies and I don't like bullies. And I saw people (get) oppressed and mistreated. I got a problem with that. (But) I don't believe in going out and killing anybody. I do believe if you can give a hand to someone, or you can stand up for someone, then you should, but I don't believe in going out and killing anybody. Some people need to get knocked out. That's true. But I don't believe in killing anybody.”
In 2021, the television series was rebooted with Queen Latifah as Robyn McCall. It’s a less violent take on the character, but vigilante justice is still on the table. Fuqua’s trilogy saw Robert massacre scores of mafioso without ever being taken to task, and it makes absolutely no sense. With a new McCall taking over the reins on television, it seems only fitting to give Denzel Washington’s version the proper sendoff in beautiful, idyllic Italy.
Asked if this is the last time we see (Washington’s) McCall, Fuqua answers, “This is it. He's got it now. He's found his peace. This is it. You know, he finds a home. If you can you can find a home you know that's the start. Right? Whether he finds true peace, we will know. Equalizer 4—I might not be around for that one.” Only time will tell.