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.