As one does in Italy, Robert McCall likes to sit in a little cafe, watching the world pass by. McCall — an enigmatic avenger played by Denzel Washington — likes tea, but he’s fine with the coffee that a beautiful server brings him with a smile. People often smile at McCall, perhaps drawn to his looks, his quiet mien and the restrained intensity of his physicality, as if he were holding back a great and terrifying force. Or maybe, like the rest of us, they are trying to silently encourage McCall to just get on with it and start painting the town red.
This is the third and apparently last “Equalizer” movie that Washington will make. Maybe he’s grown tired of the franchise’s same-old ultraviolence or perhaps he’s bored with the predictable predictability of it all, even if this installment is as reliably watchable if ethically challenged as the previous ones. Whatever the case, little has changed since the first “Equalizer” (2014). McCall is still the enigma all in black who, when brutal push comes inevitably to more-brutal shove, demonstrates extraordinary combat skills, near-superhuman strength and a genius for predicting the trajectory of bodies flying and falling in space.
Washington is unsurprisingly the primary reason to watch “Equalizer 3,” which is basically a showcase for him to smolder, swagger and light up the screen as he wanders a tiny, wildly beautiful town on the Amalfi coast. Tucked beneath a mountain and facing the sea, the town is miraculously free of swarming tourists, which is one of the story’s more outlandish conceits. McCall lands there soon after the opener, a big, splashy number in Sicily that sets the darkly brooding mood and underscores that villains should never be too cavalier about leaving their corkscrews lying around. Our guy isn’t going to use it to uncork a bottle of Nero d’Avola.
The corkscrew ends up in the same vulnerable spot where you’d expect it to go, especially if you have seen the first “Equalizer.” In that movie, the skewered baddie was a minion in the Russian mob; the human cork here is in the Italian mafia (specifically the Camorra). The repeat of the corkscrew bit adds to the movie’s retrospective quality, as if Washington and his principal collaborators in the series — the screenwriter Richard Wenk and the director Antoine Fuqua — were bidding a nostalgic farewell to McCall and the grim, dark (morally, literally) fallen world that he has been trying to set right all these years.
A reliably energetic, often restless director, Fuqua has tamped down his customary visual flamboyance, and for the most part he simply oscillates between many, many sweeping aerial shots and closer ones of the actors (the cast includes Dakota Fanning and Remo Girone) doing their thing. Some of these eagle-eye points of view may be a function of the town’s tight coordinates, though Fuqua may just like playing with drones. He also tosses in a few cineaste nods — McCall’s head is shaved again, so cue “Apocalypse Now” — as he offers up a vision of modern Italy (old men with fishing nets) as canned as anything shot on an old Hollywood lot.
Although the locations and supporting actors are generally new, nothing else is, familiarity being part of the appeal of this kind of genre standard. Once again, a broodily charismatic, patriarchal American loner serves as jury, judge and executioner, meting out punishment to the wicked and avenging the wronged. To that end, it is instructive that you don’t learn why McCall is in Italy until very late. You may briefly wonder what he’s doing in the country — is he retired, on a mission or vacation? — but this information is as irrelevant as the names of those he dispatches. All that matters is watching McCall kill, for justice and entertainment.
The Equalizer 3
Rated R for extreme gun, knife and corkscrew violence. Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes. In theaters.