There is no such thing as an unwatchable Denzel Washington movie; he makes a good movie great and can single-handedly make a bad movie decent. As far as I can tell, there are four main genres of film for Denzel Washington:

Suspense filmsPelican Brief, Devil in a Blue Dress, John Q, Man on Fire, The Taking of the Pelham 123, Unstoppable, and 2013’s Flight.

Military/Cop filmsGlory, Ricochet, Crimson Tide, Courage Under Fire, Fallen, The Siege, The Bone Collector, Training Day, Antoine Fisher, Out of Time, Manchurian Candidate, Inside Man, Déjà vu, and releasing February 10, Safe House.

Bio PicsCry Freedom, Malcom X, Mo Betta Blues, Remember the Titans, The Great Debaters, and American Gangster

SciFi/Apocalyptic FilmsVirtuosity, The Book of Eli

There are only three films that don’t fit into any of these categories (many fit into several).  One is the only pseudo-straight-romantic-comedy film he’s ever done, 1996’s The Preacher’s Wife.  There are moments of romance and moments of comedy in his other films but nothing else that comes close to being identified by either sub-genre.  The other two (He Got Game, Philadelphia) are two of his most iconic roles: the homophobic lawyer, Joe Miller, who eventually learns to respect Tom Hanks (even though we’re never really sure if his homophobia has quelled), and Jake Shuttlesworth, the ex-con father of basketball blue –chipper Jesus Shuttlesworth, whose intensity personifies the encouraging-to-the-point-of-damaging parent of an athlete we’ve all come to know and detest over the years.  He thrives in these roles for the same 5 reasons he thrives in all his roles, because as a movie-goer, you know what you’re getting:

  1. Denzel Washington is intense.  He is in pursuit.  He’s chasing someone or being chased.  He’s dictating orders.  He’s bristling when someone gives him orders.  He puts his index finger in people’s faces.  His eyebrows go all the way to the top of his forehead when he doesn’t believe you.  When he shakes his head, he does it violently because of how wrong you are and how unwilling he is to accept your invalid statement.  When he nods, he nods enthusiastically because you’re finally getting it.  If you and he are running from bullets, he is actually protecting you first and running second, whether you realize it or not.  His famous laugh is also vibrant, but it is the same regardless of the situation.  If you told him something funny, it’s the same laugh as his reaction to something incredulous.
  2. No one gets the best of Denzel.  If you think you’ve outrun him, you’d better keep running.  If you think you’ve gotten the best of him it’s because he wants you to think that.  Whether he’s being framed, set-up, lied-to, or unjustly incarcerated, he will get his way eventually.  Even if he has to die in the process, the status quo is never the status quo at the end of a Denzel movie.  He’s kicked too much ass for us to ever be able to go back to the way things were.
  3. Denzel always has a plan.  Whether we’re being held hostage, holding someone hostage, or know someone who’s being held hostage, Denzel knows what we’re going to do.  The rest of us sit around and bicker or throw around stupid ideas, but when we hear Denzel’s plan we know he’s the one to follow.  Sometimes he’s not even in the room to hear what our suggestions are, but when he enters the room he knows we know his plan is the best.  Even if you thought your plan was good, as soon as you hear Denzel’s plan you know your plan was garbage.  Also, we don’t wait once we hear his plan; it immediately goes into action and all the bit players are satisfied with their roles.  We don’t mind dying ourselves if it helps Denzel’s plan.
  4. Denzel has way too much to do to worry about playing by the rules.  Whether he’s a criminal who has never played by them, a cop who doesn’t have time to worry about them, or someone in between, if society’s agreed-upon morals impede him from getting the job done, he’s not interested.  Denzel doesn’t do “think pieces.”  He doesn’t do “indies.”  He doesn’t do comedies.  He doesn’t play the good-natured dad.  He doesn’t do suburban malaise.  He doesn’t do taxes.  He doesn’t retire early or fake sick and stay home from work or complain that gas prices have risen three cents in the last week.  Hell, he barely even analyzes.  He just acts.  He intimidates.  He punches, he shoots, he sweats.  He can be sentimental, but usually that’s just so he can convince you to come with him to safety.  In reality he doesn’t care about your feelings, nor does he have time to help you with them.
  5. Denzel is not a stereotype.  He happens to be black, but seriously, when is that ever the first thing you think of when his name comes to mind?  Some of the historical work includes racism by necessity, but I can’t think of a single role he’s played that couldn’t have been played by a person of a different race.  Whether we like it or not, Hollywood likes their stereotypes, whether it’s “typical rich girl,” “typical WASP,” “typical Jew,” “typical Hispanic,” or “typical black guy.”  Your own prejudices can help fill in the details for each of these categorizations, but the point is they exist.  Denzel could star in a Woody Allen biopic and nail it, although he wouldn’t, because Woody Allen isn’t intense, people get the best of him, he never really has a plan and always plays by the rules.  But if not for those four factors, Denzel would be just as good a candidate as any.   I recently saw the unbelievably brilliant and contemporary Bridge on the River Kwai for the first time.  If they wanted to remake it, could Denzel reprise Alec Guinness’ iconic Colonel Nicholson?  Of course.

How can Denzel be all these things?  One thing pervades each of these other categories:  Denzel Washington, the actor, is confident.  Therefore the characters he plays are confident.  Confidence=cool=charisma=Q rating.  This is the formula that has made him one of the greatest actors of his generation, a man with the rare ability to make a C- movie a B+ just by being in it and being confident.  We trust his decision making, even when he plays insane.  I don’t know if I’ll like Safe House, but I know I’ll like Denzel Washington in Safe House.  If that doesn’t make sense you haven’t seen enough of the films listed above.  Correct that error.  One final thought:

My favorite Denzel movie is American Gangster, and my favorite scene from my favorite movie embodies everything I’ve discussed up to this point.  Denzel plays Frank Lucas, a former Vietnam vet who has used his military contacts to become the CEO of American heroin.  He isn’t found out for a very long time, and one scene helps to explain why:

Frank is having lunch with his brothers at a corner café in Harlem.  A man walks down the street who owes Frank money/disrespected Frank/looked at Frank funny (I forget exactly, but the point is he feels disrespected and as you can see from the above list, Denzel doesn’t do well with disrespect).  Upon seeing this gentleman, Frank calmly dabs his mouth with his napkin, calmly excuses himself from the table, walks out into the street and calmly executes the guy in broad daylight.  Then he calmly walks back into the restaurant, calmly places his napkin back in his lap, and calmly continues his lunch.  All this happens IN BROAD DAYLIGHT.

Why repeat the word “calmly” six times?  Because only Denzel could make a sequence like that somehow endearing to his character.  He’s not going to get caught, because, as Frank explains to his brothers, “I took care of Harlem, so Harlem takes care of me.”  AND HE’S RIGHT!  For some reason if it was Clooney, or Leo, or even DeNiro or Pacino, I’d be thinking, “well, he’s finally lost it.” But with Denzel I think, “Yes, Harlem should take care of you.  You were right to kill that man.  No meddlesome responding officer had better ruin your lunch, either.”  Frank spends so much of the movie doing right by his community and offering solid advice like, “The loudest man is the weakest man,” that we’re willing to excuse the occasional slip up/cold-blooded murder.  He’s so calm and confident, I’m sure he had a perfectly justifiable reason to do it.  I’m sure if you asked the victim they’d agree they had it coming.

On February 10, Denzel Washington stars in Safe House.  Here is the IMDb blurb: “A young CIA agent is tasked with looking after a fugitive in a safe house. But when the safe house is attacked, he finds himself on the run with his charge.”  In other words, he’s a man who has run afoul of the law who knows too much and must be protected.  His protector is played by Ryan Reynolds.  They’re being chased.  You honestly think it’s Ryan Reynolds’ plan that ends up saving them?  Me neither.