With the notable exception of 2012’s “Flight” — a character piece that earned him fresh plaudits and an Academy Award nomination -- Denzel Washington has had a remarkably consistent career over the last five years. Every one of the five lead roles he’s taken has had him playing a lone-wolf-in-danger in a commercial action pic.
Sure, a bit more comedy has been drizzled on to some of the parts, and character nuances have been a little different--he’s an all-powerful international spy one time, a veteran train operator the next—but the overall shape is remarkably similar. Against forces far larger than him, Denzel has to scheme or shoot his way out or risk being vanquished. That continued this weekend with “2 Guns,” in which Washington plays a DEA agent who must go rogue after a conspiracy develops against him.
Is this a good thing? Some--particularly those who remember his gritty early work in movies like “Glory” and “Malcolm X”--have tired of seeing Washington as the steadfast action hero in movies that seem like mix-and-match versions of genres we’ve seen before. I’ll admit there have been times in this recent run when I couldn’t help hoping he’d throw some change-ups--a thirst that was only heightened by seeing how he can still pour it on in a filmmaking tour de force like “Flight.”
But even many of us who feel this way should probably admit, even grudgingly, that there’s something impressive about the ability to turn in this kind of movie again and again. It’s almost never done anymore.
Most brand-name actors eventually leave behind their commercial past for a stream of prestige movies (see: Brad Pitt or George Clooney) or simply drag themselves from one Hollywood tentpole to another in ever-bigger spectacles (see: Johnny Depp). But Washington is an anomaly. He has stayed with the action-movie-of-a-certain-size bread-and-butter, and embraced it. His goal, daunting as it may be, is to try to find the quality within the commercial instead of where it’s, you know, usually found.
As “2 Guns” director Baltasar Kormakur told me in an interview. “Denzel is a great screen actor who’s also a big action movie star, and there are not many who can balance that out. He can be difficult, let’s be honest; he’s not an easy guy to wrangle. But he does it out of care.”
Of course, trying to find the quality within the commercial isn’t the same as actually doing it. Some of his recent movies, such as “Safe House” and “Unstoppable,” have been well-crafted entertainment and Washington has added immensely to them. Some of them, such as the remake of “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3,” have not. But that they-can’t-all-be-winners logic applies to any actor, even the prestige ones. (OK, the prestige ones not named Daniel Day-Lewis.)
And you can’t argue with the fan logic. While his base isn’t hugely broad, no Denzel Washington movie of this recent run has opened below $22 million in the U.S. (the trend continued this weekend with the debut of “2 Guns” to $27.4 million) and all have pulled in at least $150 million globally. In a time when anything that isn’t superhero or animated can take a beating—when even big stars like Will Smith have massive disasters—box-office respectability is nothing to sneeze at.
Washington is heading back to Broadway next year with a revival of “A Raisin in the Sun.” He won a Tony Award when he was there in 2010 for the revival of August Wilson’s “Fences.” The new turn again reminds that it would be nice if he did something along these lines on the big screen a little more often. But it also brings home that while a change of pace would be nice, the pace he’s on these days isn’t necessarily easy, or common.
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