Denzel Washington picks off familiar targets in ‘Equalizer 2’

(CNN) – A sequel to a movie based on a TV show is basically the ultimate commentary on Hollywood’s infatuation with presold titles, but at least “The Equalizer 2” doesn’t harbor many pretentions about its marching orders. Anchored by Denzel Washington’s steely presence, it’s a spare, brutal vigilante exercise, with an element of righteous revenge mixed into the balance.

Although there’s a larger plot woven into the movie that (eventually) unfolds, this version of the 1980s series — following the 2014 debut — actually works best when it’s behaving more like a TV show, featuring smaller moments that underscore how Robert McCall behaves as a sort of guardian angel, albeit a particularly violent one.

Working as a Lyft driver (an especially good tie-in as product placement goes), McCall ferries people around the city, occasionally intervening as a shadowy dispenser of justice. Part Batman, part the Punisher, the former operative is quietly atoning for his past, one broken wrist and shattered kneecap at a time.

McCall’s targets, of course, all appear much in need of a beating, and some of them are actually dumb enough to refer to the older gentleman as “Pops,” which, needless to say, does not end well for them.

In the meantime, he takes an interest in his community, including the future of a young aspiring artist (“Moonlight’s” Ashton Sanders), who McCall is determined to save from heading down the wrong path.

Still, all that amounts to a garnish to a more central conspiracy, one that involves McCall’s friend Susan (Melissa Leo, back for more) and his former partner (Pedro Pascal), drawing him back into a world of espionage he has sought to escape.

Director Antoine Fuqua (again working with Washington and writer Richard Wenk) weaves in some understated humor, but “The Equalizer” doesn’t have much more on its mind than creating tension while giving Washington a chance to strut his stuff. Again, he brings weary gravity to a role described as his first sequel but that’s only a step or so removed from his work in “Man on Fire” (itself, incidentally, a remake).

The original conceit of the TV show was a veteran agent determined to help those in need — with a new beneficiary each week — and expanding that episodic formula to a movie inevitably adds an element of bloat to the proceedings.

As for quibbling about the old-style vigilante tactics, the movie’s fantastical qualities mitigate its real-world significance. That said, having Washington’s character recommend a Ta-Nehisi Coates book to his youthful charge feels like reaching for a touch of relevance that the filmmakers don’t entirely earn.

Ultimately, “The Equalizer’s” theatrical incarnation offers a reminder that the movies have always been fascinated with modern-day cowboys who clean up new frontiers, whether that’s Dirty Harry or, more recently, Liam Neeson’s “Taken” trilogy.

Washington’s McCall falls squarely into that basket. And while his latest adventure won’t necessarily make anyone’s day, in terms of the cathartic thrills associated with watching a good guy with a gun (and various other weapons) dispatch a whole lot of bad guys, “Equalizer 2” essentially gets the job done.

“The Equalizer 2” premieres July 20 in the U.S. It’s rated R.

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