I sometimes think the best measurement of an actor is less when they rise to the occasion, and more when they make the occasion rise to them. When given a great script and director, most actors of respectable talent can deliver the goods. What is perhaps more remarkable is when the material and the surrounding partners are at a level below, and you as the film-goer know this, but while you are watching, that actor makes you forget about all of that. That specific actor makes you accept the modest to weak-ass product they are selling. Ice to Eskimos, as they say.
For nearly 35 years, I look most often to Denzel Washington as the actor who can do both. Give him something great (Malcolm X, Glory, Fences) and he will knock it out of the park. Give him something mediocre (The Equalizer, The Preacher’s Wife, Fallen) and you follow along as if you are looking at something better. Hell, on the rare occasion he has made a truly bad movie (Virtuosity, Ricochet, John Q), if nothing else, you are thankful for his presence which makes that which otherwise crippling tolerable.
It’s magic, I tellsya. Magic.
Take The two Equalizer movies. Both are competent, but largely ridiculous. Especially the first one. I mean, who thought it was a great idea to set the comeuppance of the baddies in a hardware store and then have Washington pick up any random tool off the shelf to dispatch the interlopers one by one? It was like Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians with Garden tools. Clean up on aisle everywhere.
Despite what Rotten Tomatoes may tell you, Equalizer 2 is a decidedly better movie than its predecessor. The pacing is less frenetic, the script is sharper, the stakes higher, and when Washington lures the villains into a coastal community facing down a hurricane, there is not a hedge trimmer to be found.
Still, it ain’t exactly high art. Yet, there are moments. Such as when Washington shows the at-risk youth (played terrifically by Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders) he has taken under his wing the true risk of taking the wrong path in life. It’s a scene that somehow manages to be harrowing even though you know the outcome of it with all certainty. The Equalizer 2 is not going to take a left turn into true darkness. Again though, in the moment, you feel it. Because Washington’s intensity leaves you completely convinced.
You couple that with his relationship with the always great Melissa Leo and the extended focus on his character’s tragic backstory and I shit thee not, Equalizer 2 is, at times, downright soulful. Yeah, I know. I can’t believe I said that either. I don’t have a choice. It’s simply true.
Of course, most of Washington’s career has leaned to the more high-minded. Even a mess like John Q has good intentions.
If we look at Washington’s career since his big break in A Soldier’s Story way back in 1984, his movies break down like so.
Legit bad: Virtuosity, John Q, Ricochet, Heart Condition, Two Guns. Four genuinely crap films that he couldn’t save despite herculean effort. Still, imagine them without him.
Noble failures: Power, Cry Freedom, The Siege, Roman J. Israel Esq. These films aimed high but fell short. Something you don’t quite realize until they are over because you continue to hope our man will save it. Which he mostly does. These are the kinds of movies that when you speak of them, your last sentence goes something like “Denzel was great though.”
Passable popcorn fare: The Preacher’s Wife, Fallen, Training Day, The Bone Collector, The Book of Eli, Safe House, The Magnificent Seven, Equalizer, Equalizer 2. These movies aren’t great or even very good. They are consistently watchable though. And we know why.
Superior popcorn fare: The Pelican Brief, Crimson Tide, Remember The Titans, Out of Time, Déjà vu, The Taking of the Pelham 1-2-3, Unstoppable. All of these pictures fall on the middlebrow level. They mostly set out to entertain and to varying degrees, I consider them all successful. Not a one of them would be as good without him. Remember The Titans, Out of Time, and Déjà vu would likely slip into the previous category with any other actor in the lead.
Eccentric gems: For Queen & Country, The Mighty Quinn, Mississippi Masala, Mo’ Better Blues, Antwone Fisher, The Great Debaters. This group is made up of quirky small films most people either don’t know about, or maybe have forgotten. You could call them left turns. All of them are worth seeking out. In a perfect world, The Mighty Quinn would have been a huge hit. It is a beyond delightful island murder mystery where Denzel plays a sheriff who sits down at a piano and sings Bob Dylan. There’s more to it than that of course, but really, what else do you need to know?
The underrated: The Manchurian Candidate and Man on Fire. The former took a lot of shots for being made at all. While it doesn’t reach the paranoid heights of the original, it is a surprisingly good cover version. The second is flat out the greatest borderline fascistic revenge thriller ever. Disagree if you like, but I’m ready to fight over it. Dirty Harry ain’t got shit on this.
The excellent: A Soldier’s Story, Philadelphia, Courage Under Fire, Inside Man, American Gangster, Flight. All of these movies range in the very good to greatish range. I would like to take this moment to say that anyone who thinks Tom Hanks was more deserving of an Oscar than Denzel for Philadelphia has taken leave of their senses. It’s not that Hanks wasn’t very good in Jonathan Demme’s important, if somewhat safe, AIDS based legal drama, but Washington is the person whose eyes we see the film through. The one who we root for to change. And Washington’s character does change. Invisibly, imperceptibly, and when his character, the attorney Joe Miller, adjusts Hanks’ oxygen mask at the end, well, it’s one of two times I’ve ever cried in a movie. Alchemy.
Finally, the truly great: Glory, Malcolm X, Much Ado About Nothing, Devil in a Blue Dress, He Got Game, The Hurricane, Fences. These are the five pictures I would put at the head of the class. The ones I believe he should be thought of for. Yes, even Much Ado, where he plays Keanu Reeves’ brother with zero explanation. That alone is enough for me. Well, that and the fact that it is a wonderful film and showcases how well he could blend into an ensemble when asked. He’s also stellar with iambic pentameter. Because he can do just about anything.
It’s a staggering resume, really. Of his generation, I would put him at the tip-top of the food chain. Oh, I suppose you could argue for Daniel Day-Lewis. I’m sure there’s some sabermetrics you could apply to buttress your argument. It’s just that Denzel has produced quantity and quality. He has somehow married the charisma of an old school movie star with the skill level of the master-class actor. You follow him. Through good movies and bad. Through characters noble and disreputable. You do this because you have no choice. There is simply too much talent. Too much charisma. Too much magnetism. Too much magic.
And yet, that’s not the whole of it. Washington will turn 65 next year and he is just as vital as ever. One year he directs and stars in a best picture nominee about a man so broken by life he can’t even love his own son. Two years later he pulls a somewhat dodgy formula flick over 100 million dollars at the box office. Who else does that? Who else could? Who else even tries?
Over the course of a career that is now in its fifth decade, he has made films for personal, political, and popcorn-based reasons. Sometimes the trio blend into one another. Sometimes they are disparate in their goals. Regardless, he has been successful in all three fields of play. He has done this while being almost universally loved and respected. He is one of the titans.
He also brings people together.
Let me close by sharing with you this anecdote.
I prefer going to movies on weeknights or at matinees. The fewer the people in the room with me the better. There’s less chance of someone annoying me. Kicking my seat. Talking too loudly. Checking their messages. All that nonsense.
However, when I went to see Equalizer 2 last weekend, I had a very particular experience. I was at a matinee and the group was sparse. There was a young couple sitting behind me.
A much older couple came up and sat behind me at the other end of the same row. The fellow of the young couple says to the septuagenarian about to take her seat, “You here to see Denzel?”
The woman was caught off guard. I mean, how often do random strangers speak to you in dark rooms, and is that ever, like, you know, a good thing?
“What?”, she replied.
“I was just wondering if you were here to see Denzel. He’s my favorite actor and I was just wondering if that’s why you came”, he said.
Charmed, the elder responded, “Oh yes, I think we’ve seen all his movies.”
“That’s great. I just love him”, the young fella said.
Of course, I had to get in on this communal action. There will be no toasting of Denzel in my presence without me raising a glass and putting in my 2 cents.
I look over at the young man and said, “You can check that box for me too.”
His eyes lit up and he let out a “My brother!” followed by a fist bump.
We then had a short convo about Fences and The Great Debaters.
All of this is perfectly nice, right?
Here’s what stuck with me though. The young man happened to be black and his girlfriend was white. The older couple were both of the pale pallor as well. And me, well, I’m a set of blue eyes short of being an albino.
In that moment, a thought came to me. “This is what I would like America to be.” A black guy can reach out to an old white couple while sitting with his white girlfriend, start up a pleasant conversation about movies that so appeals to the curmudgeon in the row ahead of them that he can’t resist jumping in. And no one cares about anything else except what they have in common. In this case, Denzel Washington.
Then a second though came to me.
“Maybe Denzel Washington is magic.” Because in my experience living here in America, stuff like this doesn’t happen all the time. And yes, I know it may seem small, but I don’t think it is.
Denzel can not only get you in front of the sequel to a half-baked predecessor, but he can bring people together.
I don’t think that’s small at all. I think that’s magic.
Denzel Washington magic.