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Is Denzel Our Greatest Action Star?

More than 20 years of complex, fascinating heroes say he just might be

Columbia Pictures/Ringer illustration

“I was doing Eugene O’Neill last week, now I’m talking about jumping off buildings and kicking. … But I like that, I like being challenged in different ways,” Denzel Washington told Bill Simmons last week. After a successful, Tony-nominated run on Broadway in The Iceman Cometh, the actor returns to the big screen with The Equalizer 2, his first movie sequel, which seems to worry a lot of people but, truly, makes perfect sense. Of all the Denzel action flicks (and there are a lot of them) 2014’s The Equalizer—directed by Washington’s friend and longtime collaborator Antoine Fuqua—is the one best suited to serialization. As the actor explained on Simmons’s podcast, Fuqua had written the part of retired CIA black ops operative Robert McCall especially for him; the success of the film and Washington’s enjoyment of the experience, combined with the fact he’s not getting any younger and action films aren’t easy to come by for a 63-year-old actor, made the idea of a sequel understandable. Washington’s unique contributions to the action genre throughout his career, meanwhile, make the prospect of The Equalizer 2 at least a little exciting.

It wasn’t long after Washington was first noticed in Hollywood for his performances in political period pieces that he started to dip into the action genre and revealed his more playful side. With a Best Supporting Actor nomination, at age 33, for the harrowing Cry Freedom in 1988 and a win in 1990 for the Civil War film Glory, Washington had begun to establish himself as a symbol of African American righteousness, his characters fighting against the forces of racism in both pictures.

But also in 1989, he appeared in the oft-forgotten The Mighty Quinn, arguably his first pure action feature. In this wholly unique film, Washington adopts a Jamaican accent to portray the cool and dedicated local chief of police, Xavier Quinn. When a rich white hotel owner is found murdered and decapitated, Quinn’s best friend, petty thief Maubee (Robert Townsend), is the first suspect but can’t be found. In this Caribbean and slightly surreal version of a typical film noir, Quinn follows various orders and leads, all the while fighting off temptation from women, to discover the bizarre truth that mixes political conspiracy, mysticism, and racism.

I can’t speak for the accuracy of Washington’s accent in The Mighty Quinn, but his innate understanding of the character anticipated a career playing action-heroic types. At once determined to defend the law and close enough to his townspeople to sympathize with their socioeconomic and personal plights, Washington’s Quinn exudes authority and casualness in equal measure. He can joke and laugh with that now-iconic loud chuckle when he tells Maubee that, really, he should stop running away and explain to him what’s going on. And yes, that combination of control and warmth means that Washington is sexy in uniform, as several female characters notice. He walks in his characteristic, charismatic way, moving his shoulders in time with his feet. Even then, Washington’s Movie Star Charm made him a Problematic Movie Husband: Everyone loves the Mighty Quinn, but his singer wife, Lola (Sheryl Lee Ralph), wants him to remember that he’s a married man.

That pairing of a strong sense of justice and a natural, highly attractive cool—which Roger Ebert likened to the swagger of Robert Mitchum, Michael Caine, and Sean Connery—also opened the door for some badass action. In The Mighty Quinn and for the first time in his career, Washington’s control and confidence turned into pseudo-karate techniques: In an astonishing scene early on, Quinn suddenly kicks a knife out of a man’s hand with his foot a la Jackie Chan, and slow-motion effects emphasize how swiftly he dodges punches. The effect is slightly ridiculous but delightful. This dabbling in martial arts would run throughout Washington’s career, eventually devolving into simpler close-combat techniques.

Two years later, Washington starred in Ricochet, arguably one of the most ludicrous and quotable action films ever made, which perhaps explains why he didn’t star in another full-action film until 1995. Without spoiling its many ridiculous pleasures and crazy twists, young LAPD officer Nick Styles opens the film by arresting psychotic hitman Earl Talbot Blake (John Lithgow, leaning heavily into the evilness he developed in Brian De Palma movies) wearing only his boxing shorts (Styles had to strip to prove he had no guns on him, but of course, he had one in said shorts—the metaphor is there for the taking). The film focuses intently on Washington’s by-then much more athletic body, nearly offering some male frontal nudity, as well as on his more wholesome attachments to his family and to justice. Years after Blake’s arrest, Styles has graduated to assistant district attorney and founded a happy family; after a mad escape, Blake attacks both aspects of Styles’s settled life, tarnishing his professional reputation and threatening his wife and children. But director Russell Mulcahy (of Highlander fame) also gives Washington much more running and shooting to do than he’d experienced to this point. Washington proves a compelling gunslinger, ready to use violence to serve justice and look great doing it.

Perhaps due to Ricochet’s negative reception and general madness, Washington returned to serious dramas, to great success: He was nominated for an Oscar for Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992) but also demonstrated his affinity for the theater (his “first love,” he told Simmons) in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing (1993) and excelled in Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia (1993). But Washington returned to action cinema in 1995 with Virtuosity. The result, unfortunately, was Ricochet-level “so bad it’s good.” Again playing a defender of justice, Washington is an ex-cop serving 17 years in prison for killing his family’s murderer, and he has to stop yet another madman, the virtual reality simulation SID 6.7 (a hilariously tacky, pre-stardom Russell Crowe), who has been built from the minds of 183 serial killers and manages to leave his computer to enter the real world. The same year, Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days explored the dangers of VR with more flair, but Virtuosity was testimony to Washington’s determination to stay ahead of the curve and experiment, without holding on too greedily to his prestigious image.

Echoing his role in The Mighty Quinn, Washington appeared, also in 1995, in another noir that doubled as the last film to unapologetically highlight his sex appeal (Washington was 40 in 1995, although looking at his physique, you’d never think so) and one of the first action films to let him be less proper and rightful than he had been. Directed by Carl Franklin, Devil in a Blue Dress was more focused on racial dynamics and more brutal than The Mighty Quinn. Washington’s vibrant, drawling voice lends itself perfectly to the 1940s setting, as does his charm, especially in interactions with potential femmes fatales in disguise—his character is even nicknamed Easy. What erodes Easy’s usually peerless devotion to justice is the discrimination and corruption of 1948 Los Angeles. When Easy is asked to find the missing white wife of a high-ranking white politician, he is immediately suspicious of the husband’s motivations, but he badly needs the money. In this Chinatown-like scenario, Easy’s efforts don’t amount to much good, and from then on, this nihilism and moral ambiguity would become central to Washington’s new action-star persona.

1996’s Courage Under Fire saw Washington play a man of authority with a guilty conscience; investigating the blurry circumstances of a female captain’s death to determine whether she deserves a posthumous Medal of Honor leads Nat Serling to reflect on his accidental killing of a colleague in the Gulf War. Bad conscience also afflicts Detective Hobbes in the fantasist and rather bad 1998 film Fallen, when the serial killer he’s arrested and placed on death row seems to return via a copycat. The nightmarish—and somewhat prescient—terrorist panic film The Siege (1998) may end with Washington’s FBI agent Hubbard being proved right in his relentless defense of American values, but that relief is only reached after martial law is declared in New York City, leading to total chaos. In all of these films, Washington gets to show a vulnerability as he enters middle age. His cockiness and martial arts moves have disappeared with his youthful ideals of justice, even as he clings to his integrity.

When Washington departed even further from his early law-abiding characters, he won a Best Actor Oscar, becoming only the second African American actor to do so; his idol Sidney Poitier was the first in 1963. In Training Day—his first collaboration with Fuqua—Washington still plays a detective, but one whose methods need managing. Navigating the Los Angeles drug market with rookie narcotics detective Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) to teach him his tricks, Detective Alonzo Harris is unhinged, threatening, and clearly having a ball as he tests the limits of his power. Washington’s screen presence here isn’t the appealing smoothness that inspired complete trust and fascination in The Mighty Quinn or even Courage Under Fire. Alonzo talks fast and crudely, and he smiles when you don’t tell him what he wants to hear, a disconcerting response that Washington has since made his trademark. It works every time. Alonzo is fascinating because he’s scary. His face is always animated and he moves with aggressive confidence. He uses his guns the same way that his drug-dealing enemies do: brutally, pointing them down, and firing away without restraint.

But Alonzo, like Washington’s earlier characters, believes strongly in his own righteousness—too strongly. When his corruption is exposed and his life is in danger, he absurdly declares, “You can shoot me, but you can’t kill me.” Devoured by the corrupt system and his vigilante aspirations, Alonzo is Xavier Quinn if he had given up on his principles as an agent of the law; he’s Nat Serling if he had refused to confront his guilt and seek the truth. With Training Day, Washington tainted his do-gooder image to tackle more ambiguous roles in the action genre, which began a streak of successful, high-octane movies, of which The Equalizer franchise is the culmination.

After Training Day, even the most righteous of Washington’s action characters began to be deeply flawed. Alcoholism became a recurring narrative device to suggest regret and weakness. The illness afflicted Washington’s unfaithful but kindhearted police chief Matt Lee Whitlock in Out of Time (2003), even as he was being set up as a murderer and literally being pursued by his own detective wife, played by Eva Mendes (who had already portrayed Washington’s girlfriend and the mother of his child in Training Day). It is as though with age, the little imperfections of Washington’s young strong men degenerated, turning these past icons of self-confidence into pathetic shadows of themselves.

The following year, in his second and highly lucrative collaboration with director Tony Scott, Man on Fire, Washington played John Creasy, a former CIA agent and U.S. Marine turned security guard who finds that taking care of his client Pita (Dakota Fanning), the little girl of a rich Mexican businessman, helps him stop drinking and chases away suicidal thoughts. When Pita is kidnapped, Creasy promises her parents he will kill every single person responsible. In this relentless and hyperviolent film, Washington confirms both his taste for large Hawaiian shirts and his late-career determination to play dirty: He tortures and slaughters criminals but also corrupt police officers, letting go of all nuance in his lethal judgment. He’s seen too much of that shit. Yet his vigilantism can’t go unpunished down in Mexico, and after making sure that Pita is safe and sound, he lets himself die from countless, brutal wounds. In death, Creasy finds humility and regains his honor. Washington’s brutality is supposedly forgiven: He died for our sins.

Creasy’s mix of altruism and weakness would motivate many of Washington’s characters after Man on Fire, making him a particularly touching action hero and explaining why the man who once played badass and respected lawmakers would come to portray the Equalizer, or even Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017), a down and out-of-touch lawyer trying to fight for justice in a world that no longer cares. Perhaps no one needed a modern remake of The Manchurian Candidate in 2004, but as the abused military man uncovering a conspiracy, Washington sheds more skin to reveal the fragile man under the virile armor. The high-risk and mysterious hostage situation in Inside Man (Washington’s fourth collaboration with Spike Lee) makes his Detective Frazier feel completely out of control, notwithstanding the charges of corruption that were already threatening his reputation, yet he pushes through for the sake of both the hostages and the uncovering of a deeply buried war crime. Playing lawful men in the early 2000s, Washington was rather sheepish, but as the titular American gangster in Ridley Scott’s 2007 thriller (which reunited him with Crowe), his self-confidence returned—and yet, there, too, he was guided by his desire to protect others as the self-made businessman drug lord providing for his family. In the other gratuitous remake of the decade, Tony Scott’s The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009), accusations of bribery once again made Washington more timid but still righteous and family oriented. The action itself consists mostly of Washington talking to violent individuals, using his wisdom as a now-older man to guide their attacks, and eventually resorting to gunfire if necessary to protect others.

In the 2010s, older, humble, and often alone—as though the arrogance of his youth has led everyone to abandon him—Washington has taken this image of old savior with a checkered past to new heights. In The Book of Eli (2010), this martyr persona is made literal as Washington must fight his way across postapocalyptic America, carrying the last remaining copy of the Bible: He’s a messiah with agile fighting skills, sacrificing himself for what remains of humanity. On a smaller and more realistic scale, Washington played everyday heroes in Unstoppable (2010) and Flight (2012), saving passengers on an imperiled train and an airplane, respectively. In the latter, alcoholism was central to his character, and in his confession scene, which earned him another Oscar nomination, Washington’s overwhelming shame keeps the character from ever feeling truly heroic. Even in the buddy movie 2 Guns (2013), in which Washington carries fewer regrets and starts off with a pal instead of as a lone wolf, he is the more muted companion to Mark Wahlberg’s womanizer and discovers in the end that he can count on only himself. The quiet and anarchic streak continued with The Equalizer in 2014, which fully reignited the vigilante flame of Man on Fire but added more gory close combat and increased the body count exponentially. In 2016, yet another remake no one asked for had Washington lead the group in The Magnificent Seven to protect a village against greed and violence. Playing an actual lonesome cowboy reinforced Washington’s current place in the action genre: Thinking little of himself and with nothing left to lose, he dedicates himself to helping those who still have something to live for, whether it be revenge or their innocence.

The ominous tagline for the first Equalizer was “What do you see when you look at me?” Perhaps this latest period in Washington’s career really is a way for him to ask this question. His wide smiles still light up rooms, but they’re rarer. His walk remains impressive, but it’s less flamboyant. After killing for justice, regardless of consequence, he is now paying for the impudence of his early characters and regaining the strength he later lost to regrets and shame. In nearly every role, Denzel Washington is equalizing his action-star persona.