All Hail Denzel Washington, King of the Thriller

Movies Features Denzel Washington
All Hail Denzel Washington, King of the Thriller

I sometimes wonder if Denzel Washington knows how often Ethan Hawke mentions him in interviews. Hawke, who never seems to tire of talking shop, hits a new stride in his enthusiasm whenever he’s given the opportunity to wax poetic about his Training Day co-star. “I love somebody [who] sets the bar high, for crying out loud,” he told The Hollywood Reporter in 2015. “I mean, everybody just is so complacent. It’s like they’re waiting for Martin Scorsese to show up to give them permission to do great work. Why not do it now?” With a background in theater and a reputation as an actor’s actor, Washington could have navigated his career by reserving his “great work” for Eugene O’Neill plays and the occasional showy turn in a dramatic film. Thankfully, we live in a timeline where he does all of that and still manages to churn out thrillers and crime movies at a regular clip. And though the 2010s produced some less-than-classic entries into the canon of Denzel thrillers, he’s still taking a “why not do it now” approach to elevate even the most mediocre among them.

For 30-plus years, Washington has routinely pitted his charisma against the commotion of these big, noisy movies, often managing to overwhelm the spectacle around him with the sheer force of his screen presence. While he’s made classics of the genre with other directors (Inside Man hive, rise up), the popular conception of a “Denzel thriller” remains inextricable from Tony Scott, with whom the actor made five movies, starting with the Gene Hackman two-hander Crimson Tide in 1995. Over the course of their next four collaborations, Washington portrayed most of the character types that he still returns to in his thrillers: A killer haunted by his past (Man on Fire), a dogged law-enforcement agent racing against the clock to prevent a disaster (Déjà Vu) and an ordinary Joe who’s good at his job but finds himself in over his head (both Taking of Pelham 123 and Unstoppable). Not all of these are masterpieces, but Scott was a distinctive stylist who knew how to put a hefty budget to use, and Washington’s innate sense of authority helped to counterbalance the director’s choreographed chaos. If there’s an obvious dip in the quality of Denzel thrillers after the 2000s, it’s because the actor never quite found the same dynamic with a director following Scott’s death in 2012.

Even so, Washington remained nearly as prolific of an action-movie presence in the 2010s, extending his reign through the decade as one of the few remaining stars whose name alone can make a dent at the box office, especially when paired with a poster of him carrying a gun. Money aside, the real test of a movie star lies in their ability to pull off ridiculous-sounding character names, so credit to Washington for playing it completely straight as a guy named “Tobin Frost” in 2012’s Safe House. A rogue former CIA agent intent on exposing corruption in the intelligence community, Frost is of the haunted-by-his-past variety of Denzel characters, a Jason Bourne-esque figure with an outsize reputation as a badass. Bland and borderline incoherent, the movie at least offers a whole lot of Washington outsmarting everyone else in the room—one of the most reliably satisfying tropes of his thriller output.

The actor’s comedic talents, meanwhile, too often go underutilized in these movies—a bizarre oversight given how frequently funny he is in the role that won him a Best Actor Oscar (Training Day). Enter 2 Guns, a 2013 buddy comedy with Mark Wahlberg that somehow manages to be forgettable despite featuring a scene in which Edward James Olmos intentionally pisses on his own hands. (Wahlberg, during the press run, compared the movie to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.) Though it juggles too many tones and is far too self-satisfied with its own supposed cleverness, the movie at least attempts to get some laughs, and its leads have chemistry despite a script that fails them at every other turn. In hindsight, it also feels like one of the last times Washington was allowed to enjoy himself while making one of these.

Thirteen long years after Training Day, Washington designated its director, Antoine Fuqua, as his new go-to guy for thrillers, collaborating with him on not one, but two Equalizer movies before the decade’s end, marking the first time the actor had ever appeared in a sequel. (The pair also worked together on 2016’s Magnificent Seven remake.) As Robert McCall—the titular, uh, equalizer—Washington is primarily asked to deliver the occasional speech about the difference between right and wrong before dishing out revenge on behalf of one helpless person or another. Both movies are as grim and joyless as their gloomy aesthetic would suggest, with a stone-faced but still-compelling Washington leaving one mangled corpse after another in his wake. Fuqua ensures that every broken bone and gouged eye is felt viscerally by the audience, but the movies have none of the manic energy or balletic choreography that allow a similar formula to work so well for the John Wick series. Washington’s presence alone might be able to resuscitate most mediocre thrillers, but the Equalizer movies sure do seem intent on testing the bounds of that theory.

At 66, Washington’s still at it, extending his thriller run into a new decade with this week’s HBO Max release of The Little Things. A lower-key affair than his Scott or Fuqua collaborations, the neo-noir nonetheless revisits some classic tropes of the Denzel thriller: A cop, haunted by his past but exceedingly good at his job, seeks redemption by returning to a case he botched years earlier. The movie has its share of weaknesses, but Washington carries the whole thing on his back with ease, providing what’s hopefully a preview of the grizzled old-man roles he’ll play in these movies for however long he wants to keep making them. As he once told Oprah, “It’s like the term ‘movie star’: What does that mean? It’s just a label they give you until they replace it with another one: ‘has-been.’ I don’t claim either.”

Chris Stanton is a copy editor and freelance writer based in Brooklyn, NY, and is usually looking for opportunities to talk about Jack Nicholson. He can be followed on Twitter @chrisstanton27.

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