Working in the industry for more than 35 years, Denzel Washington has established himself as a go-to guy for charming everymen, impossibly tough guys and noble warriors. A double Oscar winner, he was an action star long before the likes of Liam Neeson saw it as a career path and has enjoyed multiple collaborations with filmmakers from Spike Lee and Tony Scott. From Glory to The Siege, Philadelphia to The Preacher’s Wife, he brings the Washington stamp of quality to every film, even if they don’t all deserve it. He’s back this week working with his Training Day director Antoine Fuqua on The Equalizer, so the time is right for a sprint through his better films and one you’re better off skipping.
ESSENTIAL VIEWING: PHILADELPHIA (1993)
Tom Hanks took home the hardware for his role as a lawyer diagnosed with AIDS who is fired and takes his former employers to court. But Washington is with him every step of the way, bringing real nuance to a part that presents considerable challenges. He plays small-time lawyer Joe Miller, a man who must overcome his own feelings of homophobia to do what he knows in his heart is right. In a film about overcoming prejudice, Washington’s character has the most significant journey to take, moving from the sort of man who consults his doctor after shaking Andrew Beckett’s (Hanks) hand to becoming the crusader for justice that his client needs. The film had the potential for controversy, but Washington gives it just the right level of sensitivity and severity to bring his character's humanity to the surface, and bring more prejudiced members of the audience with him.
ESSENTIAL VIEWING: MALCOLM X (1992)
His brilliant and Oscar winning supporting turn in Glory had already established Denzel Washington as an actor of unquestionable talent, but it was Spike Lee's Malcolm X that established him as a true powerhouse. Taking the Civil Rights leader from his days as a street punk right through his days as a political leader to the assassination that ended his life, it's a performance that not only carries the movie but has to convince us of its subject's considerable evolution - no easy matter even in three hours of running time. But Washington conveys so much, even in relatively short scenes, that the film feels coherent even while Malcolm X changes before our eyes from gangster to believer, and from fire-raising preacher to political leader.
ESSENTIAL VIEWING: TRAINING DAY (2001)
“King Kong ain’t got shit on me!” Washington hefted his second Oscar for this blistering performance of a veteran LAPD officer gone very, very wrong. But instead of simply playing the bad cop to Ethan Hawke’s nervy new recruit to his team, the actor chews up David Ayer’s cracking script and creates a cocky and conflicted monster who you can see went sour after too many years on the job. Brutal and barking by equal measure, Alonzo Harris crackles with charisma as he rules his narcotics beat with an iron first, a foul mouth and an assortment of weaponry. He and Hawke play off each other perfectly and it’s not hard to see how such an antihero forced his way into award voters’ affections and won Washington the Best Actor award, only the second African-American man to take it.
RECOMMENDED: MO' BETTER BLUES(1989)
Washington’s initial turn in another Spike Lee joint finds him as jazz trumpeter Bleek Gilliam. A meditation on life choices, music and the tough world of low-level jazz ensembles, this is Washington letting loose the full force of his charm, while never shying away from the darker aspects of the character. He’s wise beyond his years – “I may have been born yesterday, but I stayed up all night” – but even that can’t always stop him from getting in trouble with ladies and the loan sharks who have targeted his bet-happy manager, Giant (Lee himself). Juggling relationships and performances, Bleek’s soul is clear for all to see, thanks in no small part to Washington’s willingness to dig for it.
RECOMMENDED: CRIMSON TIDE (1995)
It takes presence to stand up and shine against Gene Hackman glowering at his best, but Washington more than manages it as Lt. Commander Ron Hunter, who clashes with his sub captain as the fate of the world lies at stake. As the by-the-book officer who finds himself having to stage a mutiny to stop Hackman’s Frank Ramsay making what he considers a lethal nuclear mistake when orders to fire missiles come in, Washington offers a great performance that is by turns modulated and explosive. Tony Scott keeps the action claustrophobic and tense for much of the running time, but Denzel isn’t stifled; he uses the cramped quarters to his advantage, and turns a script that saw uncredited work from Quentin Tarantino into more than the sum of its parts.
FOR THE FAN: MAN ON FIRE (2004)
Washington has worked several times with members of the Scott family. He teamed up with Ridley on the interesting but flawed American Gangster, but it was Tony Scott with whom he had the most fruitful collaboration. The pair worked together five times between Crimson Tide and Unstoppable, and this effort is not, if we are completely honest, high art. It is, however, a contender for the most entertaining of the lot, with Washington an unstoppable force of vengeance when the small child he has been hired to protect is kidnapped and killed. From the rather touching bonding scenes between the pair to the outrageously violent campaign against her kidnappers, Washington demonstrates the truth in Christopher Walken's summation of hischaracter: "Creasey's art is death. He's about to paint his masterpiece."
ONE TO MISS: VIRTUOSITY(1995)
American Gangster proved that Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe can play superbly off one other. But you might not have guessed it from their first on-screen match-up, this dodgy ‘90s CG-fest that sees Crowe’s virtual reality villain SID 6.7 emerge into the real world to threaten cop Parker Barnes (Washington). Aside from being in love with the concept of VR, it’s a rote serial killer thriller with a script that does neither actor, nor the rest of the cast, any favours. Crowe opts for mania and silly suits, while Washington plants himself in Moody Cop 1.0 mode. “One’s digital,” screams the trailer. “The other’s the law.” Neither, however, is bathed in glory here.