Turning 60 this year, Denzel Washington remains one of the true great Hollywood leading men. The first time I remember seeing him was in the late Richard Attenborough film Cry Freedom, even at a young age I detected he was destined to be significant and the best was yet to come.
The two time Oscar winner (Glory 1989, Training Day 2001) takes on the Russian mafia in his new film The Equalizer, based on the retro television series of the same name. It’s a perfect fit for the actor playing a retired special military enforcer who uses his skills to wipe out a team of nasty Russian criminals in order to avenge the bashing of his friend that resulted in her going to hospital. Denzel stalks these villains with all the grace of a snake, moving slowly then striking when the time is right. It’s a glorious film of excessive violence with a finale inside a home hardware store where he uses all the tools on hand to kill his adversaries in exotic fashion.
Remembering Denzel makes me smile; he has done so many cool movies and a few which he admits himself he shouldn’t have made. Way before Greys Anatomy sucked in viewers with its dire story-lines mixed with white coat romance, his big break came on the medical television series St. Elsewhere, but I first took notice of him on the big screen in Glory. If you want an instant masterclass in acting, watch it immediately and you will see why the Best Supporting Actor Oscar was his.
A rare comedy followed, I can only think he was contracted to this fluff long before the Oscar nomination, Heart Condition was amusing but only a glimpse of his extraordinary talent. Malcolm X took Denzel to the next level, this bio-film directed by Spike Lee was a tour de force of superior acting but lost to Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman. The Pelican Brief was another brilliant performance although understated and overshadowed by his co-star Julia Roberts, who at the time was white-hot due to Pretty Woman.
Small but riveting roles followed in Philadelphia opposite Tom Hanks and in a movie which flopped at the time of release, but has since gained a reasonably huge following, Virtuosity. Starring a pre-Gladiator Russell Crowe, the pair make this B-grade science fiction film work with ethical acting and a sense of humour which underlays the ridiculous plot discrepancies.
Denzel pushed boundaries and took unlikely roles such as Don Pedro in Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing. The articulate verse suited his strong voice well and it is still one of the most accessible Willy adaptations.
Moving on past the insignificant Preachers Wife, one of his few regrettable films, although Whitney Houston may disagree, I believe his role in Crimson Tide was a turning point. The submarine thriller was ghost-written by Quentin Tarantino and his face-off opposite legendary Gene Hackman glows with sincerity and tension. An argument about mutiny goes back and forth to extremes then at one point they both take a deep breath and just stare, incredible stuff to watch. As a movie lover, I was in heaven.
The Hurricane and The Bone Collector showcased his talent even further, two different roles but both afflicted with diversity that he slips into with ease. Remaking the classic cold war conspiracy thriller Manchurian Candidate may have been a high risk idea on paper, but Denzel along with Meryl Streep made it work so much so that when watching the original and the remake back to back, Denzel almost out-acts his 1962 counterpart Frank Sinatra, almost.
Training Day was the film which won Denzel his leading actor Oscar. As a corrupt street-wise gold chain wearing detective looking after Ethan Hawke during his first day on the beat, you cannot look away from him once or you will miss something but at the same time, you hate his character no-end. Superior acting yet again.
Film selection for him remains varied, I liked his re-teaming with Rusty in American Gangster, but few others did. 2 Guns was a recent action comedy that is good while you watch it but forgettable as soon as the final credits roll. For emotional realism, Flight is a movie where Denzel lets everything out in no uncertain terms as a recovering alcoholic airline captain that saves his passengers during a mid-air emergency, hailed as a hero only to be taken to trial as he was drinking the night before. Oscar-nominated again, let me just say, aspiring actors only need to watch this film and you have an instant master-class of no-holds barred performance.
His new film is sure to cause censorship dilemmas. The Equalizer is a great simmering drama with excellently slotted action scenes. Denzel plays the hitman with zero remorse for the bad guys but an open heart for his colleagues. Young Chloe Grace Moretz equals her co-stars effort in an above average performance acting yet again beyond her years. Her prostitute character is the reason this quietly spoken, well read gentleman she chats to at the coffee shop goes into stealth mode. One particular scene making good use of a corkscrew will forever be engraved in your cinematic memory.
It is a role which conveys in similarity to his very first appearance on screen, as a mugger in the Charles Bronson vigilante classic, Death Wish. When the movie advertisements claim Denzel Washington in the cast, it is a must-see whatever the genre.
Shane A. Bassett