Denzel Washington is the greatest actor alive, don’t @ us. From the stage to the big screen, Denzel brings both gravitas and undeniable charm to all of his roles. Ahead of Thursday’s release of Roman J. Israel, Esq., we’re celebrating Denzel all day here at The Ringer.
Nobody commands a screen like Denzel Washington. Whether he’s terrifying you with a threat so personal and specific it feels as though he’s already executed it or helping you adjust your moral compass, Denzel’s acting is always complex and affecting. He’s taken on a dizzying variety of roles throughout his storied career, but which movies are the best vehicles for his talent? Naturally, we had to shout out our favorites.
Man on Fire
In 2004, four years before Taken reintroduced modern film audiences to the concept of middle-aged men wielding a very particular set of skills for the purposes of revenge, Denzel was hunting kidnappers through the streets of Mexico City in Man on Fire. Mr. Washington plays John Creasy, a depressed and down-on-his-heels former special forces operative who is reduced to bodyguarding for a wealthy, very possibly drug-connected family. Their precocious young daughter, Pita (Dakota Fanning), touches Creasy’s ruined heart, pulling him out of his shell. So, of course, because every middle-aged-man revenge tale needs a precipitating incident usually involving the death, violation, or abduction of a wife, daughter, or daughter figure, she’s eventually kidnapped. Creasy goes on a fire-and-brimstone mission of wanton but very focused destruction, tearing the kidnapping cartel down piece by piece, setting fire to a dance club, torturing informants, shooting rocket-propelled grenades in suburban neighborhoods, and putting an explosive pen in a dude’s butt. In the end, Pita is freed and Creasy dies, more rubble than man. Had the late Tony Scott realized what a cottage industry revenge pictures would soon be, Creasy would probably be with us now, applying his particular set of skills to untold sequels. —Jason Concepcion
The best Denzel Washington movie is Training Day, because Training Day is the only Denzel Washington movie that has every single one of all of the best Denzel Washington things.
It has the thing where he knowingly and approvingly laughs (the scene where he pressures Jake into smoking and drinking). It has the thing where he gets to lecture someone from a mountaintop (the scene where he tries to convince Jake that every good detective is corrupt because you have to be corrupt to be a good detective). It has the thing where he gets to be smarter than everyone in the room (the scene where they rob and then murder Roger) and also the thing where he gets outsmarted (the scene when Jake finally figures everything out and confronts him). It has the thing where he gets to be terrifying (the scene when he assaults one of the bums who was fighting Jake).
It has the thing where he raises his voice and the world vibrates (the King Kong scene) and the thing where he growls all of his words out and they feel like lava (the scene right before the King Kong scene, when he demands that Jake give him the money). It has the thing where he’s charming (every scene where he smiles) and the thing where he pivots away from charming into discomforting (every scene where he stops smiling). And it has the thing where he sits at a table and absolutely destroys the person sitting across from him (the scene where he and Jake first meet up at the diner).
Training Day is the best Denzel Washington movie. —Shea Serrano
Remember the Titans
Remember the Titans is a Disney sports movie, but it’s not in the same category as The Mighty Ducks or The Rookie—and Denzel Washington is one of the main reasons why. He’s perfect as coach Herman Boone, a force of talent and energy which propels the rest of the movie. Every line he says is quotable: “Water is for cowards,” “Once you step on that bus you ain’t got your mama no more,” “You’re killing me, Petey!” and just about the entire speech he gives at Gettysburg. Every movement he makes is calculated and perfect, like when he slow claps in Gerry Bertier’s face:
I love that.
Denzel is at his best when he’s playing a teacher—his commanding presence not only forces you to listen, but makes you want to listen. He’s been able to find a lot of different ways to stretch the definition of “teacher”—Alonzo in Training Day is a teacher; Jake Shuttlesworth in He Got Game is a teacher—but give me this version above the rest. There’s a reason cable channels play Remember the Titans so much; they know you’ll stop and watch Denzel in it no matter what. —Andrew Gruttadaro
Mo’ Better Blues
“I like order.” This is how Bleek Gilliam explains himself to Clarke, his sometime-girlfriend in Spike Lee’s fourth film, Mo’ Better Blues, the follow-up to Do the Right Thing. It’s a curious note from a jazz musician, but Gilliam’s life is a contradiction, playing a kind of music that favors free form and rigid execution, monastic concentration engorged with romantic multiplicity. He can clean and reconstruct his instrument with the precision of an assassin, but he wields it like a wand.
Washington’s performance is of the controlled variety, that laser-beam-focused intensity staring directly into Lee’s lens, mouth-playing the notes of his solos. “He even got to the point where he could hear the blues,” Terence Blanchard, a then-28-year-old trumpet prodigy and Washington’s teacher, said of the actor’s training with the instrument. It’s no small compliment—Gilliam is a classic tortured artist, short on cash, stuck to untrustworthy friends, circling the drain of a creative life. He needed to hear the blues to play them. —Sean Fennessey
This is Denzel Washington’s best Jimmy Stewart performance. He plays the executive officer on Gene Hackman’s submarine in Tony Scott’s note-perfect 1995 military thriller, and his character is built out of moral granite. The boat goes dark, Hackman’s captain betrays an itchy nuclear trigger finger, and it’s up to Washington to save the crew and the world. Despite some truly harrowing set pieces, this is a two-hander battle of the wills. Screw that—it’s a heavyweight title fight, with Washington and Hackman trading knockout punches in the volcanic fight for control of the sub.
“Hell no you won’t, sir.” What a line reading—incredulity, emerging panic, but also an understanding of what must be done. Watch how he shifts through the gears to get to a controlled state of fury. And the best part? Denzel is acting against Alonzo Harris in this moment: Hackman is King Kong!
Washington has spent the last 15 years playing damaged goods—dark men begrudgingly doing right in a world that has wronged them—and you can’t help but think that’s how he sees himself (he’s making a second Equalizer movie, after all). That’s too bad; we don’t have enough heroes. —Chris Ryan
Courage Under Fire
(A note: I just want it out there that I picked this movie assuming someone would swoop in behind me and do Inside Man. This is like last summer when we did a roundtable on who the star athlete of the Olympics was and we all got cute and nobody picked Simone Biles.)
Courage Under Fire is technically about Karen Walden, a Gulf War helicopter pilot played by Meg Ryan with a regrettable Southern accent, and her nomination for a posthumous Medal of Honor. Denzel plays Lieutenant Colonel Nat Serling, a former tank commander who investigates her story while he himself deals with the fallout from a friendly fire incident that claimed the life of one of his friends.
We see Walden’s story told on screen about half a dozen times, each retelling changed to reflect new details Serling uncovers, and that’s all very clever, but this is only a war movie in name. Courage Under Fire lives in Serling’s interviews, where Denzel plays rhetorical tennis with a variety of hitting partners: Lou Diamond Phillips, Michael Moriarty, Scott Glenn, and a very young and very emaciated Matt Damon. With each of them, Serling displays a different side of himself, painting a vivid and complete picture of a complex character.
So often, the great Denzel performances are unmistakably Denzel. By contrast, in Courage Under Fire, we see how Serling has much more going on underneath his confident and charismatic exterior, which makes him feel less like a movie star and more like a man. —Michael Baumann
There’s only one flight in Flight; the rest of the movie is Denzel doing things—arguing with his ex-wife about alimony, sleeping with stewardesses, landing a plane upside down—while varying levels of trashed. In the film’s denouement, without wading too far into the details, Denzel’s Whip Whitaker is presented with a choice between telling just one more lie, or doing what he knows to be right after a life’s worth of unpardonable sins. He admits that he has alcoholism, and though the confession happens in a massive room full of reporters and flashing cameras, it’s almost as if he’s finally admitting it to himself: “I’m drunk right now, because I’m an alcoholic.” It was as if the words burned on the way out: He jabbed the wall of his mouth with his tongue, his eyes watered, sweat beaded on his upper lip. Whip may not have been believable as a pilot, but in that moment he was believable as a person. —Micah Peters
The Preacher’s Wife
The Preacher’s Wife has everything you could possibly want in a #wholesome movie: Whitney Houston directing a choir of adorable children, Courtney B. Vance grappling with various moral crises, and Jenifer Lewis commenting on how endearing Denzel Washington is—as an angel. Denzel plays the angel Dudley, sent down to earth to answer the desperate prayers of Reverend Henry Biggs (Vance). For most of the movie, Dudley is a persistent pest; Denzel is somehow both irresistible and infuriating as he brings the reverend’s family together with celestial charm. He smiles, laughs, and teases his way into the Biggs family’s good graces, leaving plenty of room for Julia (Houston) to shine as both matriarch and vocal icon. It’s certainly not Denzel’s most riveting performance, but it’s a delightfully heartwarming entry in an otherwise thriller-heavy oeuvre. Most Denzel movies feel like a glass of whiskey, neat; The Preacher’s Wife is more like a cinnamon-spiced hot toddy. —Hannah Giorgis
He Got Game
Spike Lee’s 1998 film is a good basketball movie, but it is a great Denzel movie. Playing Jake, the convict father of Ray Allen’s Jesus Shuttlesworth, Denzel imbues the role with a pitch-perfect blend of rage and pathos. His character is a flawed, wizened old man who is desperate for redemption he can’t quite attain (hence, rage) but knows he doesn’t quite deserve (pathos).
Most people remember the climactic one-on-one scene between Jake and Jesus, but the moment that sticks with me most is what happens as Jake is accosting his son’s love interest (played by Rosario Dawson). A friend of hers confronts him, and Jake is quick to act. Without warning, Jake catches the friend in the throat with his open right hand, leaving him gasping for air. “I didn’t hear what you said,” says Jake to his stunned foe. “What’d you say?” Then, Jake cuffs the back of the friend’s head with his left hand and finishes him with a quick right hook. As far as KO methods go, I’d call that one relatively understated yet devastatingly effective. And that would also describe Denzel’s performance in this movie. —Donnie Kwak
The Bone Collector
Listen, I’m going to be straight with you: I don’t think The Bone Collector is the best Denzel Washington film of all time. That’s a tie between He Got Game and Training Day, OBVIOUSLY. (A lil “behind the scenes” info for ya: The thing about doing roundup posts is that you have to be really quick to the draw, or you get stuck with the damn Bone Collector.) Anyway, I do think that The Bone Collector is the best Denzel Washington movie where Denzel Washington plays an embittered and incredibly handsome quadriplegic detective. I also think it would be a more iconic film if, instead of “Two cops on the trail of a brutal killer. They must see as one, they must act as one, they must think as one, before the next victim falls,” the movie’s tagline was “It’s Bonin’ Season.” —Kate Knibbs