In 2001 Denzel Washington won his first Best Actor Academy Award. The movie was Training Day and Washington’s performance as the corrupt Los Angeles Police Department narcotics officer Alonzo Harris established the actor’s propensity for playing ambiguous antiheroes.
Is there another A-list leading man who explores the dark side of his characters as often as Washington? Will Smith and Tom Cruise occasionally let the heroic side of their on-screen personas take a back seat, but Washington revels in mucking around in the mud. From Training Day to American Gangster, Safe House to Flight, he has crafted complex characters you wouldn’t want to sit next to on the bus.
This weekend he’s back as Robert McCall, home improvement store manager by day, equalizer of odds by night. Based on the cult 1980s television show The Equalizer starring Edward Woodward, the film begins with the former black ops commando trying to leave his violent ways in the past. He meets his greatest adversary just when he thought that part of his life was over. Namely, the Russian mob leans on him after he tries to protect a young woman (Chloë Grace Moretz) from her pimp.
No other superstar seems as comfortable with moral haziness as Washington. In American Gangster, for instance, he was Frank Lucas, the one-time driver for a Harlem mob boss who rose to the top of the drug world by flooding the streets of Manhattan with cheap, high-grade heroin smuggled into the United States in the coffins of dead soldiers returning from Vietnam. He’s a dichotomy — bloodthirsty and ruthless, but he also attends church every Sunday with his mother.
In Flight, he played troubled pilot Whip Whitaker, an anti-hero who is functional in day-to-day life despite his predilection for wine, women and cocaine. He’s charming one minute, enraged the next and passed out on the floor the minute after that. Washington manages to subtly capture the ego and hubris that allows Whitaker to present a sober face to the public while bringing us into the messy world of addiction.
The actor has played his share of assorted good guys over the years — Ricochet’s cop-turned-attorney and Don Pedro of Aragon in Much Ado About Nothing — but it is his willingness to mine the heroism of the nasty men he plays that makes him one of the most interesting A-listers.
SYNOPSIS: Denzel Washington plays a troubled airline pilot who safely lands a malfunctioning plane, saving 96 of the 102 people passengers and crew. Hailed as a hero at first, soon his unsavory personal habits bring him under suspicion. Was it a malfunction of a mechanical or personal nature that brought the plane down?
Richard: 3 Stars
Ned: 2 ½ Stars
Richard: Ned, is there another a-list leading man who explores the dark sides of their characters as often as Washington? Will Smith and Tom Cruise will occasionally let the heroic side of their on-screen personas take a back seat, but Washington revels in mucking around in the mud. From Training Day to American Gangster and Safe House he crafts complex characters you wouldn’t want to sit next to on the bus. Do you think this is Oscar worthy?
Ned: As far as A-listers in love with the dark side, it’s pretty much Washington and Leo DiCaprio, who I don’t think has smiled onscreen since Catch Me If You Can. And Washington gets plenty murky here — so much so that it made me wonder if we’d be rooting for this character at all if it were played by someone else. Let’s face it, the booze- and coke-addled pilot he plays here only has one attractive characteristic: looking and sounding like Denzel Washington. As for Oscar-worthy, I’m not so sure on this one.
RC: I thought he managed to subtly capture the ego and hubris that allows his hotshot character to present a sober face to the public, even though the film’s visual language is frequently not as refined. A close-up of Washington’s hand grasping a mini bottle of vodka and the accompanying swoosh sound looks like something that should be in a commercial not in a film about the effects of alcoholism.
NE: The tone of the film in general seemed to be all over the place. Who knows, maybe the whole film was supposed to seem drunk? In any event, it didn’t work for me. His hitting rock bottom is played for laughs, and Kelly Riley — as the recovering heroin addict he shacks up with for… some reason — seems to be literally in a different movie for the first 30 minutes or so. And as movies about alcoholism go, it probably doesn’t do Flight any favors to come out so soon after the much more nuanced and devastating Smashed.
RC: I think Smashed is a much more touching and effective story about addiction. As much as I enjoyed Washington, I wish the movie had been more concise. It flits around a half-dozen themes before the end credits roll which is two or three too many.
NE: Overall, the movie left me cold. It starts great — with thrilling takeoff and crash-landing sequences as the highlights, but it’s flat and uneven from then on until the moral kicks in without warning.
On paper American Gangster sounds like a home run. It stars two charismatic Oscar winners, re-teams Russell Crowe with his Gladiator director Ridley Scott and is written by the Oscar winning screenwriter behind Schindler’s List. That‘s all good right? Well, not exactly. Based on a true story—just like recent big winners Walk the Line, Ray and Capote—it is the kind of late-year release that seems almost guaranteed to garner Academy attention, but in reality American Gangster is less than the sum of its parts.
Denzel Washington plays Frank Lucas, the one-time driver for a Harlem mob boss who rises to the top of the drug world by flooding the streets of Manhattan with cheap, high grade heroin smuggled into the United States in the coffins of dead soldiers returning from Vietnam. He’s a dichotomy, bloodthirsty and ruthless, he also attends church every Sunday with his Mother.
On the other side of the street is Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), a cop whose honesty makes him an outcast in his corrupt precinct. When his former partner dies from a drug overdose Roberts relentlessly devotes himself to ridding the streets of Lucas’s heroin.
Inevitably their paths cross as their worlds become intertwined.
Scott takes his time with the story, laying it out over the course of 157 minutes. Length is not necessarily a bad thing as Roger Ebert once pointed out—“No good movie is too long,”—and many other crime dramas have epic running times—The Godfather is 175 minutes long, Goodfellas just slightly shorter at 145 minutes—and remained compelling right through to the end credits, but American Gangster feels like it is 157 minutes.
The difference between Scott’s movie and The Godfather or Goodfellas is that they were masterfully paced, blending the crime elements of the plot with carefully tailored stories of family life and the importance of loyalty. American Gangster tries for the same richness of story, but succeeds only in presenting a rambling first hour, cluttered with subplots and meaningless, although beautifully shot, scenes that add little to the overall story.
For instance, a fair amount of time is spent on Roberts’s troubled personal life and a drawn out custody battle. It struck me that the whole family drama aspect of Roberts’s life belonged in another movie. Excising that story thread from American Gangster could easily save half-an-hour and some wear and tear on our already strained backsides and bladders.
Sir Ridley puts some lipstick on this pig, tarting it up with great cinematography, nice attention to the 1970s period detail and well cast, although underused actors like Cuba Gooding Jr and Chiwetel Ejiofor, in supporting roles. For all its angels, however, American Gangster is simply too ambitious for its own good and is in need of a talented editor to bring out the important aspects of the story and snip the rest.