The Good, the Bad and the Badass: Denzel Washington
After taking a week-off for TIFF following my breakdown of movie composer Hans Zimmer's amazing career, The Good, The Bad & The Badass is back with another column looking at an actor whose many great films often featured iconic music by none other than Zimmer. That man...
For about twenty-five years now, Denzel Washington has been one of the biggest stars on the planet. While many of his contemporaries have seen their share of career ups and downs, Denzel has been consistent, and actually seems to be growing in stature as the years go by. What's unique about him is that he can simultaneously open a crowd-pleasing action programmer like SAFE HOUSE or 2 GUNS, while also wowing critics and audiences alike with a movie like FLIGHT, which still went on to make close to $100 million domestically.
It's amazing how far Denzel has come from playing second fiddle to George Segal in CARBON COPY, or playing on ST. ELSEWHERE. Denzel just keeps getting better and better, and while he's in his mid-fifties, it's not hard to imagine Denzel's stardom continuing for decades more to come. Eventually he'll probably ease in to being a character actor similar to someone like Morgan Freeman, but for now he's still one of the best leading men we have. Even if his movies aren't always great, Denzel never ceases to deliver powerhouse performance after powerhouse performance.
Believe it or not, before writing his article I had never seen Spike Lee's MALCOLM X. I was all but ready to name MAN ON FIRE his best film, but I figured that if anyone was going to take this discussion of his career seriously, I had to at least watch what many consider to be his crowning achievement. Suffice to say, they're right, his performance as MALCOLM X is the best thing he's ever done. It's a tough role, with him having to believably take his character from being a drug-using gangster to one of the most influential men of the twentieth century, and Denzel makes you believe that transition. Even though he doesn't look all that much like the real-life Malcolm, he absolutely captures the man and it's outrageous that Al Pacino somehow beat him for best actor with his showboating in SCENT OF A WOMAN (a fun role, but far from his best).
I've always thought TRAINING DAY was phenomenally overpraised. Sure, it's a solid action-drama, and Denzel is fun in it as one of cinema's all-time great dirty cops. But it's crazy that this is the film that finally nabbed him the best actor award, as he's delivered performance after performance that absolutely dwarfed this. Denzel deserved the Oscar, but not for this.
I always thought AMERICAN GANGSTER was unfairly overlooked. Sure, it made tons of money, but the critical reception was cool, and many people talked about being underwhelmed by the saga of Frank Lucas, who smuggled heroin into the U.S with American service planes returning from Vietnam. If you haven't watched it in awhile, it deserves another look. It's a sprawling gangster saga, stylishly directed by Ridley Scott, with a dream cast that not only boasts Denzel and Russell Crowe, but also features future stars like Idris Elba, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, and a scene-stealing turn by Cuba Gooding Jr., who should have landed a comeback off this. The DVD cut is interesting, with a ten minute epilogue examining the odd friendship that ended up developing between Lucas and his one-time pursuer, Richie Roberts.
This is an absolute no-brainer. Ed Zwick's GLORY is a wonderful movie about a regiment of African-American soldiers serving during the Civil War, and Denzel won a richly deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his part as Pvt. Trip, the regiment's most rebellious soldier. The scene where Matthew Broderick as Colonel Shaw has him stripped to the waist and whipped is a master-class in acting, from Broderick's revulsion at Trip's scarred up back, to the single tear that flows down Washington's face as he tries to maintain some semblance of defiance.
1. MALCOLM X
2. MAN ON FIRE
Denzel's a busy guy, and is currently shooting the big-screen version of THE EQUALIZER, which reunites him with Antoine Fuqua. He plays former CIA operative Robert McCall who, after a crisis of conscience, becomes a kind of freelance trouble-shooter, offering his services free of charge to those in need. THE EQUALIZER was a great show, and this could launch a whole new franchise for him.