We had our doubts when Denzel Washington and director Antoine Fuqua felt compelled to dust off Edward Woodward’s ’80s prime-time relic, “The Equalizer,” for a feature update four years ago. To our surprise, the duo delivered a gritty, relevant genre yarn that bristled with vigilante danger that the product-of-its-time TV show could never muster. The movie even adroitly dropped CIA-trained samaritan Robert McCall into a Home Depot(ish) cover setting, in what played as a wink at cheesy, budget-friendly action milieus from back in the day.
Apparently, we should have reserved our skepticism for “The Equalizer 2.” Save for a couple of crisp standalone segments incorporated as tone-setters, Washington’s first-ever sequel is a narratively and visually muddled disappointment, one that regularly confuses numbing brutality with vicariously thrilling righteous vengeance. The fault isn’t Washington’s — he brings as much electricity to the role this time as last. Even so, he and Fuqua record their first misfire in a partnership that also includes Washington’s Oscar showcase, “Training Day,” and their 2016 remake of “The Magnificent Seven.”
Following a crackerjack Middle East opener that reinforces McCall’s espionage bona fides — and casts Washington as a decidedly different sort of Muslim militant from Malcolm X — the action again finds our hero kicking around Boston, this time as a Lyft driver. It’s a wry departure from Woodward’s signature Jag, not to mention a promising story springboard, even if the fares end up blurring together. (Swell to see you, Orson Bean, but we’re still not quite sure what you’re doing here; McCall’s involvement with Ashton Sanders’s at-risk neighbor kid is B-story enough.)
Cut to Brussels, perplexingly, and a grisly assassination that McCall’s old CIA boss (cast returnee Melissa Leo) jets off to investigate, only to land in a tight spot herself. Leo, at least, gets to show some fight after having to snivel through a comparable gig in Fuqua’s “White House Down.” Still, McCall’s pursuit of her case with an assist from his former partner (Pedro Pascal, “Kingsman”) feels a bit removed from the whole helping-the-helpless theme. More problematically, ensuing betrayals are predictable — hey, it was the kinda-sorta familiar actor, just like on TV! — and a climactic gunfight improbably set against an evacuation-level nor’easter is a convoluted bid for visual novelty. Maybe Fuqua is trying to reconcile this silliness with the ballistics-and-environment verisimilitude of another of his films, “Shooter,” when he has McCall’s sniper nemesis sneer, “The wind makes it interesting.” Guess what? It doesn’t.
THE EQUALIZER 2
Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Written by Richard Wenk. Starring Denzel Washington, Pedro Pascal, Melissa Leo, Ashton Sanders. Boston theaters, suburbs. 121 minutes. R (brutal violence throughout, language, some drug content).Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.