Denzel Washington’s performance in Malcolm X is one of the greatest of all time. The depth and humanity that Denzel finds in Malcolm, the way he brings the great man’s shifting perspective to subtle life, is beautiful. And it’s an example of how to do a biopic performance right - getting to the heart of the man, not doing a Rich Little impersonation.
But in recent years we’ve seen less and less of that Denzel. The actor, whose range was always anchored by an innate sense of righteousness, started drifting towards action films. At first they were pretty badass - Man on Fire is something else - but then they began to get more and more unremarkable. By the time that Denzel did his one-two punch of train movies, The Taking of Pelham 123 and Unstoppable, it was hard to care about the actor’s next project. That continues this week with the release of Safe House, a movie seems completely ignorable (I’ll be seeing it tonight, so I guess we won't be completely ignoring it here).
What puzzles me is that Denzel remains good in these mediocre films. He’s not phoning it in. He does seem to be relying more and more on a series of tics and broad signifiers, but he’s not turned into late period Bruce Willis, grumpily showing up to keep his SAG card up to date. Denzel’s still good - he’s just in bad movies.
It’s not like his record has ever been so spotless. Look at 1995, when the great Crimson Tide and Devil In A Blue Dress sandwich Virtuosity. I really like The Siege in 1998, and He Got Game is another wonderfully nuanced performance from that year, but 88 also gives us Fallen. Training Day’s Oscar win comes right before John Q.
But in recent years it seems like he’s acting less. And the roles he’s taking are in worse and worse films. His relationship with Tony Scott surely isn’t helping any; Scott is Denzel’s biggest collaborator, just edging out Spike Lee. It’s a relationship that feels like a series of ever diminishing returns, with utterly forgettable movies like Deja Vu taking up valuable time in Denzel’s career.
Denzel has dipped his toes in the waters of directing, and he’s given some of his better performances in the last decade in his own films. That said his own films remain minor, and once again we end up with a strong actor piling forgettable movies on his resume. Somehow Ben Affleck is directing more memorable movies than Denzel Washington.
It seems as though Denzel has found a niche where he’s comfortable and where the work is easier. He plays badasses now. He’s tough, sometimes with a touch of humor. He might need a bit of humbling before the end, and he’s not above dying to be heroic. But there’s not usually a lot of depth to these characters. There’s a lot of charm and charisma, which Denzel does naturally, but depth is lacking.
Denzel needs to get back with Spike in a big way. Some of his best performances have come in Spike Lee movies. He needs to work more with actors on his level. Chris Pine, Ryan Reynolds and John Travolta are not his equals. He just signed on to star opposite Mark Wahlberg in a film, which is almost like a joke. He should be working opposite George Clooney - let them have a charm-off. He needs to do a movie on the cheap, to abandon the mid-range action pictures he’s making and do a film that plays at festivals. Make a film where he’s never holding a gun or in a dangerously out of control vehicle (his next movie, Flight, is about a plane with a control malfunction). And don’t take that as an excuse to go dipping back into naked Oscar bait, either.
To me Denzel Washington is on the Harrison Ford career track, and I can’t think of anything worse than that. He doesn’t even have a couple of franchise characters to keep our goodwill like Ford had. To be fair Ford is the king of not even trying, and Denzel hasn’t yet gotten that low, but both men have come to specialize in very specific roles that no longer excite us. I actually dread hearing that Harrison Ford is in a movie now. I don’t want that to happen with Denzel Washington.