I slumbered into a press screening of Antoine Fuqua and Denzel Washington‘s The Equalizer 2, ready to sulk and fearing the worst. I had found the original Equalizer a rotely bludgeoning, less-than-plausible thing that was below the level of Tony Scott‘s Man on Fire, the greatest Denzel-kills-bad-guys flick of all time. With the same screenwriter (i.e., Richard Wenk) on board for EQ2, I figured, what hope could there be of any improvement?

Well, guess what? The Equalizer 2 isn’t Man on Fire-level either, but it’s much, much better than Fuqua’s 2014 original. Yes, it’s a formulaic whoop-ass fantasy and, yes, with a few plot holes and plausibility issues, but this time I went with it. I actually felt satisfied and marginally impressed. Because EQ2 takes its time and focuses on character, basic values and careful step-by-step plotting before delivering the climactic violent payback stuff. As a result I felt more invested in Denzel’s Robert McCall, a former CIA black-ops assassin who’s now living in Boston and working as a Lyft driver. This time I said to myself, “I like this guy a little more, and I like that Fuqua has actually made a better-than-half-decent programmer for a change.”

As I walked out I was telling myself that The Equalizer 2 might be Fuqua’s best movie since Training Day (’01), but then I thought of Brooklyn’s Finest (’09), a dirty-cop drama that was relatively satisfying. There’s no question that EQ2 is heads and shoulders above Fuqua’s last four films — The Magnificent Seven (undisciplined western shoot-em-up), Southpaw (ham-fisted), the first Equalizer and Olympus Has Fallen (terrorist-attack garbage).

Pay no attention to those crappy Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic scores. The critics who are dismissing EQ2 are being way too harsh and fickle. If you’re at peace with the premise (i.e., Denzel bringing pain to bad guys) you won’t feel burned. This is a mostly satisfying actioner that actually cares about the quiet spaces between the shoot-outs and beat-downs, and it has a world-class finale — a stalking and ducking face-off between Denzel and four bad guys in the midst of a torrential hurricane.

I loved the fact that except for the opening action sequence (a de riguer thing these days), the first 20 or 25 minutes of EQ2 are about Denzel Lyft-ing people around Boston and getting to know or assist them in quiet little offbeat ways. I admired the fact that Fuqua invests in a subplot dynamic between Denzel and 22 year-old Ashton Sanders (Moonlight), one that involves values, personal integrity and good parenting.

In my 9.7.14 review of The Equalizer, I said that “I really need the action to be semi-plausible, and that means Denzel has to be at least a little bit vulnerable, and I really don’t want the bad guys to just be heavily-armed, standard-issue muscle-bound jerkoffs, glaring and snarling and wearing the same beards and shaved heads and dressed in the usual black bad-guy apparel (black suits, black T-shirts, slick black boots).” Well, Denzel is still fairly invulnerable today but at the very least EQ2 improves on the villains somewhat. They have identities, personalities and even a vulnerability or two.

I also wrote that The Equalizer “is about a third as good as Man on Fire.” In all sincerity EQ2 is maybe 65% or 70% as good as that 2004 Tony Scott film. That’s actually a thumbs-up assessment.

Denzel’s McCall is a quiet, methodical fellow who’s considerate to friends and strangers alike, who reads Marcel Proust and believes in simple brute-force justice when the situation requires it. Eastwood-style, he makes bad guys pay dearly for their greed and ruthlessness. That seemed like a good enough scheme for me, especially considering Fuqua’s surprising decision to measure every scene in a disciplined, just-so fashion. EQ2 delivers in a sturdy, good-enough way.