Total Recall

Denzel Washington's Best Movies

In this week's Total Recall, we count down the best-reviewed work of the Equalizer star.

by | September 24, 2014 | Comments

Denzel Washington
Over the course of his more than 30 years in show business, Denzel Washington has done pretty much everything — he’s played cops (good and bad), lawyers, reporters, educators, doctors, mobsters, and more, earning two Academy Awards and more than a billion dollars in box office grosses along the way. In this weekend’s The Equalizer, Washington reunites with his old pal, director Antoine Fuqua, to deliver one more lethally effective variation on the timeless tale of a mysterious vigilante who brings the pain to a cadre of nasty Russian gangsters in order to protect one of their young victims (Chloë Grace Moretz), and we thought it seemed like the perfect opportunity to take a fresh look back at his brightest critical highlights. It’s time for Total Recall!


10. The Hurricane

There probably really isn’t much that can make a person feel better about serving almost 20 years of prison time for a triple homicide you didn’t commit, but on the list of things that might come sort of close, having your life turned into a movie starring Denzel Washington must rank near the top. Washington toplined 1999’s The Hurricane as Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the real-life boxer whose long incarceration for three 1966 murders inspired public protests from a number of activists (including Bob Dylan, who wrote the 1975 song “Hurricane” about Rubin). Of course, this being Hollywood, a few liberties were taken with the details of Rubin’s life, which understandably angered some of the people depicted in the film (such as boxer Joey Giardello, who sued The Hurricane‘s producers for libel) as well as a noticeable number of critics (among them the New Yorker’s David Denby, who called it “False, evasive, and factually thin — a liberal fairytale”). No matter how they felt about the film, though, pretty much everyone agreed that Washington was terrific in it — a position exemplified by the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Margaret A. McGurk, who said, “As the center of the drama, Mr. Washington more than fills the screen; he very nearly sets it on fire.”


9. Courage Under Fire

Released in the years before American audiences developed an allergy to movies about wars in the Middle Eastern desert, Courage Under Fire used a Rashomon-style screenplay (written by Patrick Sheane Duncan) to keep viewers guessing about the final days of Army Captain Emma Walden (Meg Ryan), a Medal of Honor candidate whose death is being investigated by Nathaniel Serling (Washington), a lieutenant colonel with a painful history on the battlefield. To this point, Washington had played a lot of cool and/or affable characters, but Courage served as a reminder of the fact that he’s every bit as capable of showing depth; though the movie’s marketing hook had more to do with Ryan’s character than Washington’s, the story is about his redemption just as much as her death. The confidence with which he handled Serling’s troubled journey wasn’t lost on critics; though Washington already had a pair of Oscar nominations to his credit, Courage motivated Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews to note, “Denzel Washington gives as fine a performance as I have seen him give.”


8. Unstoppable

A buddy-pic action thriller that takes two quippin’-‘n’-squabblin’ guys and puts them on board an out-of-control train hurtling toward disaster with a lethal chemical payload, Unstoppable could easily have been the sort of C-level, direct-to-video nonsense that once awaited unlucky Blockbuster patrons who waited to peruse the shelves until after dark on a Saturday night. Director Tony Scott did it up right, however, turning Mark Bomback’s screenplay into a taut, laudably lean 98-minute ride that boasts plenty of visual thrills and a pair of purely entertaining lead performances from Denzel Washington and Chris Pine. “Some movies win you Oscars, and some have you playing second banana to an evil train,” noted an appreciative Moira MacDonald for the Seattle Times. “And both have their place.”


7. Inside Man

Washington teamed up with Spike Lee for the fourth time in this heist flick, which pitted New York police detective Keith Frazier (Washington) against a bank robber (Clive Owen) who may not be everything he seems. A familiar premise? Absolutely, and there were more than a few people who raised an eyebrow at the knowledge that Spike Lee would direct what Newsweek’s David Ansen called an “unapologetic genre movie.” As far as genre movies go, however, Inside Man is pretty smart stuff — and with a top-shelf cast that surrounded Washington and Owen with Jodie Foster, Willem Dafoe, and Christopher Plummer, well… it isn’t hard to see why this represented Lee’s biggest commercial success. In the words of CHUD’s Devin Faraci, “Inside Man is the Spike Lee film for people who don’t go to see Spike Lee films, and it’s also a fun treat for people who see everything the man does.”


6. Crimson Tide

Washington’s long and fruitful partnership with director Tony Scott kicked off with this maritime thriller, which put Washington in a submarine with Gene Hackman, tossed in a subplot about messy post-Cold War Russian politics — as well as some uncredited script doctoring by Quentin Tarantino — and grossed a healthy $154 million worldwide. For Washington, Tide was the third film in a box office-busting trilogy that started with The Pelican Brief and Philadelphia; put together, they combined for a whopping $558 million and cemented his status as one of the most bankable actors in the industry. Of course, that bankability sustained a bit of a dent with his next release, the painful flop Virtuosity, but the less said about that, the better; let us conclude, instead, with the words of the Madison Capital Times’ Rob Thomas, who wrote of Tide, “It’s great to see a high-tech thriller that thrills because of its actors, not its special effects.”


5. Devil in a Blue Dress

After putting together a mostly unbroken string of high quality, financially successful projects between 1987 and 1995, Denzel Washington was overdue for what economists like to call a “correction” — and he experienced one after Crimson Tide, entering a lull that found him starring in misguided efforts such as Virtuosity, The Preacher’s Wife, Fallen, and The Siege. It wasn’t all bad, though; despite its failure to find a typically Denzel-sized audience, 1995’s Devil in a Blue Dress offered filmgoers a cool little morsel of neo-noir during a time when new entries in the genre were few and far between. Adapted from Walter Mosley’s novel, Devil starred Washington as factory worker-turned-private eye “Easy” Rawlins, whose initial foray into sleuthing for hire is filled with all the hangovers, dames, and threatening goons one could hope for. Despite a sequel-ready ending (and ten more books in Mosley’s Rawlins series), Devil has yet to spawn further installments — a shame for critics like Jeffrey M. Anderson of Combustible Celluloid, who observed, “In the aftermath of the Oscars, it now seems clear that Devil in a Blue Dress was one of the best films of 1995.”


4. The Mighty Quinn

More than a few television actors have difficulty making the transition from the boob tube to the big screen, but Denzel Washington picked up his first Oscar nomination (for his supporting turn as slain South African activist Steven Biko, in 1987’s Cry Freedom) before finishing his six-year run on St. Elsewhere — and then he went on to earn even louder critical applause for 1989’s The Mighty Quinn. Based on A.H.Z. Carr’s novel Finding Maubee, the film gave Washington an opportunity to display his seemingly bottomless reserves of cool — and, in the first of what would be many police roles, his gift for brandishing a service revolver. While not a major box office success, Quinn‘s twisty mystery plot, sunny island locale, and a solid cast that included Robert Townsend, Mimi Rogers, and M. Emmet Walsh impressed critics — particularly Roger Ebert, who deemed it one of the year’s best films and wrote, “The Mighty Quinn is a spy thriller, a buddy movie, a musical, a comedy and a picture that is wise about human nature. And yet with all of those qualities, it never seems to strain.”


3. Much Ado About Nothing

Following his Academy Award-nominated performance in 1992’s Malcolm X, Washington opted for a decidedly less serious role — that of the matchmaking prince Don Pedro of Aragon in Much Ado About Nothing. Kenneth Branagh’s second Shakespeare adaptation, Much Ado united a colorful cast (including Washington, Keanu Reeves, Emma Thompson, Kate Beckinsale, Michael Keaton, and Branagh himself) to tell the tale of warring half-brothers (Washington and Reeves) whose squabbling serves as the backdrop for all manner of machinations and misunderstandings surrounding the wedding of Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard) and Hero (Beckinsale). As with most Shakespeare adaptations, Much Ado didn’t make many waves outside the traditional arthouse crowd, but for the folks who saw it, it proved a deft, smartly rearranged version of one of the Bard’s lighter plays. Though some scribes took issue with the film’s eclectic cast, for most critics, its flaws were minor; in the words of the Washington Post’s Desson Thomson, “Director Branagh, who altered the play imaginatively for the screen, gives wonderful import to this silliness from long ago.”


2. Malcolm X

A lightning rod in life and death, Malcolm X was a natural fit for the biopic treatment — but it isn’t hard to understand why producer Marvin Worth had to labor through 25 years of turnarounds, screenplay revisions, changing leading men (including Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy), and multiple directors before Malcolm X finally made its way to theaters in November of 1992. And even with Washington signed on to play the slain activist, and Spike Lee in the director’s chair, Malcolm didn’t see release without multiple controversies, a creative tug of war between Lee and Warner Bros., and a last-minute influx of cash from a group of donors that included Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, and Michael Jordan. Somewhat predictably, given Malcolm X’s thorny reputation — not to mention the movie’s three-and-a-half-hour length — this wasn’t a biopic for everyone, but most of those who did see it (including 91 percent of Tomatometer critics) agreed that, for all its struggle in getting to the screen, Malcolm X was a tribute worthy of its subject. It is, wrote Vincent Canby of the New York Times, “An ambitious, tough, seriously considered biographical film that, with honor, eludes easy characterization.”


1. Glory

The first of three films to unite Denzel Washington with director Edward Zwick, Glory arrived in theaters five days before 1989’s other big war drama, Born on the 4th of July — and although July‘s grosses quickly dwarfed Glory‘s, critics were quick to point out that Glory, which dramatized the struggles faced by the Union Army’s first all-black Civil War regiment, was every bit as compelling. Washington starred here as an escaped slave-turned-soldier known as Trip — and although the cast was heavy with talent, including Morgan Freeman, Andre Braugher, and Matthew Broderick, it was Washington who walked away with the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. In an Entertainment Weekly retrospective of his career, Washington looked back on Glory, revealing that before he filmed a crucial scene in which his character is flogged, he walked around “calling on the spirits of all the slaves” — and that “that whip actually hurt.” That quote is enough to explain the level of commitment to craft that has helped make Denzel Washington one of Hollywood’s most respected actors, and Glory‘s 122 minutes are enough to tell you why it inspired ReelViews’ James Berardinelli to call it “without question, one of the best movies ever made about the American Civil War.”

In case you were wondering, here are Washington’s top ten movies according RT users’ scores:

1. Remember the Titans — 93%
2. Glory — 93%

3. Malcolm X — 91%
4. Man on Fire — 90%
5. Training Day — 89%
6. Philadelphia — 89%
7. Cry Freedom — 89%
8. American Gangster — 87%

9. The Hurricane — 87%

10. Much Ado About Nothing — 87%

Take a look through Washington’s complete filmography, as well as the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for The Equalizer.

Finally, here’s the opening for St. Elsewhere, the show that brought Washington to prominence: