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.
For most of the running time Safe House is a pretty exciting action movie. Things blow up, Denzel is a wicked cool bad guy, but when the movie slows down to try and provide some back story it loses some of its explosive power.
Ryan Reynolds plays Matt Weston, a rookie CIA agent stationed at an underused safe house in Cape Town, South Africa. When agents bring in Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), an ex-agent wanted for espionage, Weston is thrust into a wild escape plan, high level intrigue and must learn who to trust.
The underlying sense of tension in “Safe House” originates with Washington. If this was a Tom Cruise or Will Smith vehicle you know that even though they might do dastardly things occasionally, they only ever play heroes. Washington is different. He’s not afraid to explore the dark side of his characters and it is not a guarantee that he will be alive by the time the end credits roll. That’s not a spoiler, it’s a comment on an actor who brings some much welcome moral ambiguity to the role. Want to find out if he lives or dies? Buy a ticket. The movie is mostly worth the ride.
It slows down when it show amp up in its last quarter. The knee-deep intrigue slows down the movie’s momentum, clichés pile up and Denzel’s uncanny ability to walk between the hundreds of bullets fired his way begins to wear thin. But up until it starts trying to tie up loose ends it has some good action and a wall of tension so high it sometimes feels like you’ll never be able to see over it.
The loser here is Ryan Reynolds who is blown off screen by Washington’s effortless cool and never rises above the clichés that make up his new-guy-thrown-into-a- fracas-of-unparalleled-danger-and-intrigue. Too bad the “Green Lantern” didn’t have action half as good as “Safe House.” If it did there might have been a sequel and we’d all be talking about Reynolds in his green tights instead of how here he is mainly a pile of clichés who barely registers when placed next to the more complex Washington character.
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.
Ryan Reynolds plays Matt Weston, a rookie CIA agent stationed at an underused safe house in Cape Town, South Africa. When agents bring in Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), an ex-agent wanted for espionage, Weston is thrust into a wild escape plan, high level intrigue and must learn who to trust. Metro movie reviewer Steve Gow opines in place of Mark Breslin this week.
Richard: Steve, for most of the running time, Safe House is a pretty exciting action movie. Things blow up, Denzel is a cool bad guy, but when the movie slows down to try and provide some back story it kind of lost me. What did you think?
Steve: Richard, I agree. Although the film begins with some fairly intense action, for the most part newcomer director Daniel Espinosa has crafted a pretty ordinary thriller. It’s got an overabundance of car chases, foot chases and frenetic over-the-top fight scenes that, inasmuch as they seem stolen out of the Bourne series, wears thin pretty quick. Still, that Denzel can steal a scene, can’t he?
RC: He sure can, much to the detriment of his costar Ryan Reynolds. Denzel wipes the floor with Reynolds. The tension of the movie comes from Washington. He’s a leading man who isn’t afraid to explore the evil nature of his characters, and unlike other A-listers like Tom Cruise or Will Smith, who have it written in their contracts that they must be the hero, Washington adds in a heap of moral ambiguity, which keeps things interesting.
SG: Absolutely. Unlike the doomed romantic sub-plot between Ryan Reynolds and a Parisian blondie. I get that Espinosa is trying to add character dimension but it just ends up unnecessary and slows the rest of the film. Besides, Safe House is about visceral action first and foremost and it does deliver there. Almost unrelentingly.
RC: Too bad Green Lantern didn’t have action half as good as Safe House. Then there might have been a sequel and we’d all be talking about Reynolds in his green tights instead of how here he is mainly a pile of clichés who barely registers when placed next to the more complex Washington character.
SG: Well, don’t expect any sequels here either. In fact, for a story that was touted as one of the best unproduced scripts in Hollywood before it was snapped up, it doesn’t push the crooked CIA story any further than we’ve seen before. Still, Denzel is clearly enjoying himself and I expect most audiences will vicariously join him for the ride.
Denzel Washington is a famous guy. Since his 1974 film debut — he played the uncredited part of Alleyway mugger in Death Wish — he’s won two Academy Awards and a Tony, directed two films and been voted one of the most handsome people in the world.
This weekend, he teams with Ryan Reynolds in what will certainly be the handsomest film of the month, Safe House. The story of a young CIA agent guarding a fugitive turns ugly when their safe house is attacked, is bound to break the box office, but not all of Denzel’s movies have been huge hits.
Though he’s had great success with films like Training Day, let’s have a look at some of his overlooked films.
The 1991 crime-thriller Ricochet starred Washington as a Los Angeles cop-turned-attorney going head-to-head with a bitter escaped criminal (John Lithgow) he put behind bars. Solid action and a great villain from Lithgow’s psycho period — before he did 3rd Rock from the Sun and went soft — it never found the audience it deserved.
Years later in Training Day, Washington’s character flashes a picture of himself as a young LAPD officer. The photo is a still from Ricochet.
Washington has played his share of attorneys and policemen over the years, but he has never been afraid to try new things, as he did in 1993’s Much Ado About Nothing. In this all-star adaptation of Shakespeare’s most famous romantic comedy, he plays the powerful Don Pedro of Aragon.
The movie took hits for its miscasting of Keanu Reeves and Michael Keaton in key roles, but Washington was praised for his work. He has performed Richard III and Julius Caesar on stage, but this movie remains his only filmed Shakespearean role.
From the light comedy of the 17th century we next look at the post-apocalyptic The Book of Eli, set just a few years from today. It’s a strange movie. Denzel plays a coiled spring of righteous power in this timely movie about how religion can be used for both good and evil.
Finally, a movie that should have spawned an ongoing franchise but dried up after just one film was Devil in a Blue Dress. Rolling Stone called Washington’s take on private investigator Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins a “richly detailed portrayal,” adding that you leave the movie hoping the other books in the Rawlins series will be turned into films. Sadly, that didn’t happen.