Denzel Washington didn’t have the highest-grossing movie at the box office this weekend. In fact, Denzel Washington hasn’t had the highest-grossing movie at the box office in his previous three opening weekends. His adult drama this weekend was edged out by a title from a more popular genre -- the 3-D animated family film -- as “Wreck-it Ralph” handily took care of “Flight” by a near 2-to-1 box-office total.
The numbers follow a trend that goes back nearly three years. In February, Washington’s “Safe House” lost out to another au courant genre -- the weepy romantic drama -- when “The Vow” edged out its opening-weekend take. Before that, Washington came in second place when his throwback action thriller, the Tony Scott-directed “Unstoppable,” lost out to the animated “Megamind” on a November weekend two years ago.
And in January 2010, Washington’s post-apocalyptic “The Book of Eli” was beaten by the quintessential modern phenomenon, “Avatar.”
Yet to describe Washington as a perennial runner-up is to miss, I’d argue, what Washington has achieved over the past few years.
In a climate in which stars no longer drive movie attendance, Washington has been a steady, even strong, presence. The $25-million opening for “Flight” was solid, not only given the movie’s manageable $31-million budget but because the R–rated drama more than held its own against popular holdovers such as ”Argo" (while handily beating star-driven newcomer “The Man With the Iron Fists").
If you return to the trio of Washington releases that preceded this one, you’d see a pattern: a No. 2 opening that morphed into a robust take over the long haul.
“Safe House” may not have won its opening weekend, but its $126 million is currently in the box office top 10 of all live-action movies released this year (and second-highest of Washington's entire career). “Unstoppable” still offered solid returns ($82 million) and finished ahead of more ballyhooed name-brand action titles such as “The A-Team” that year. With $95 million, “The Book of Eli” was the most successful January release of that year and a surprise winter hit for studio Warner Bros.
With strong word-of-mouth, "Flight" could be on track for a solid overall total, even if it will have to take on megalith “Skyfall” next week.
What’s impressive in Washington's run is not so much the individual numbers but the consistency, his ability to turn out one respectable box-office performance after another in a time of such unevenness. Few of the veteran A-listers in Washington's generation or salary stratum have matched his four-movie winning streak -- not Tom Cruise (notable disappointment : “Rock of Ages”), not Adam Sandler (“That’s My Boy”), not even Will Smith (“Seven Pounds”). Russell Crowe? Well, he starred in the disappointing “Iron Fists,” continuing what has been an erratic stretch to say the least.
This isn’t wholly the actors' fault. We live in a time when star power is pretty far down on the list of why we go to the movies - which makes Washington even more of an anomaly.
Of course, it helps that he -- unlike, say, Smith or Cruise -- has chosen roles that aren't wild departures from his bread-and-butter parts (he’s next up in another action thriller, the recently wrapped DEA/mob thriller “2 Guns”). But Washington hasn't played it entirely conservative. In “Safe House,” he was willing to star as the apparent bad guy. And in “Flight,” a showstopping opening sequence notwithstanding, his Whip Whitaker is anchoring a character piece.
Washington tragically lost his go-to director, Tony Scott, a few months ago. That can mean career uncertainty for many an actor. But from the looks of things, Denzel can go on right on being Denzel. We’d still turn out.