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The Four Types Of Denzel Washington Movies

Denzel Washington has been a staple of movies for decades. In terms of box-office performance, he’s one of the most impressive actors ever; the films he leads have pulled in an an aggregate $2.2 billion domestically, putting him at No. 29 on the all-time list, according to The Numbers. During his run, Washington has done everything from crime dramas to post-apocalyptic Westerns and has won two Academy Awards in the process. He’s Tom Hanks, if Tom Hanks decided to take risks when picking parts.

This weekend, Washington’s latest movie opens — he’s the lead in “The Magnificent Seven,” Hollywood’s most recent attempt to make Westerns a thing again. Given Denzel Washington’s essential place in the Hollywood pantheon, I wanted to know how to make sense of a career that’s been unfailingly successful since the early 1980s. So I pulled the critics’ score for every film that he’s been in from ratings aggregator Rotten Tomatoes and plotted those against each movie’s domestic box-office draw, according to data from The Numbers.


Looking across his career, I found an actor who’s worked with lots of conventional action stars — Mark Wahlberg in “2 Guns,” Chris Pine in “Unstoppable” — but one who doesn’t strictly appear in shoot’em-ups. Rather, the resulting chart shows Washington to be a serious performer willing to take a stab at heady action movies, compelling thrillers and serious biopics that go for accolades over profits. In an industry that has a substantial problem when it comes to casting black performers, Washington is a rarity — a black actor who gets consistently good, steady work.

For the Glory

“I am here to help you to find, take back and keep your righteous mind.”

— Melvin B. Tolson, “The Great Debaters”

Films: “A Soldier’s Story” (1984), “Cry Freedom” (1987), “The Mighty Quinn” (1989), “Glory” (1989), “Mo’ Better Blues” (1990), “Ricochet” (1991), “Mississippi Masala” (1992), “Much Ado About Nothing” (1993), “Devil in a Blue Dress” (1995), “He Got Game” (1998), “Antwone Fisher” (2002), “The Great Debaters” (2007).

These are films that grossed about $50 million or less and had a Rotten Tomatoes score above 70 percent. And they range across genres: There are biopics (“Antwone Fisher” and “The Great Debaters”), war movies (“Glory”) and films that take direct and unflinching looks at race (“A Soldier’s Story,” “Cry Freedom,” “Mississippi Masala”). These are the movies that put Washington on the map and won him his earliest plaudits. He scored his first Academy Award nomination for “Cry Freedom” and followed that up two years later with a best supporting actor win for “Glory.”


“Depends upon your idea of fun, doesn’t it?”

— Lt. Parker Barnes, “Virtuosity”

Films: “Power” (1986), “For Queen and Country” (1989), “Heart Condition” (1990), “Virtuosity” (1995), “Fallen” (1998), “The Siege” (1998).

These are the films that underperformed both critically and commercially, all making less than $60 million and earning about 50 percent or lower on Rotten Tomatoes. These are mostly middlebrow movies from early in Washington’s career. In the early drama “Power,” Washington’s performance stood out in a film that didn’t totally work. There are also two oddball high-concept crime thrillers: “Virtuosity,” in which Denzel Washington plays a cop and has to hunt down a virtual-reality entity who is a serial killer, and “Fallen,” in which Denzel Washington plays a cop and has to hunt down a fallen angel who is a serial killer.

But I mostly want to talk about “Heart Condition,” which might have the single worst concept of any film I’ve ever heard of.

Some questions:

  • Organ donation is a noble thing. However, this film forces a donor to spend a period of his afterlife permanently affixed to a horrible, horrible man. What led to this creative choice?
  • My knowledge of the vice squad of the NYPD is limited, but I feel like romancing a sex worker has to be way off the books?
  • Was Denzel Washington seriously kept on this earth to offer warnings about the deleterious effects of a poor diet? On a scale of 1 to 10, how cruel is god in this film?
  • The film is 95 minutes long. How much time did Denzel Washington spend trying to get the racist cop back with Crystal rather than, you know, solving his own murder?

It has a zero score on Rotten Tomatoes. I wonder why.

Hombre en Fuego

“I’ve done some bad things in my life, Nicolai. … Things I’m not proud of. I promised someone I love very much that I would never go back to being that person. … But for you, I’ll make an exception.”

— Robert McCall, “The Equalizer”

Films: “The Pelican Brief” (1993), “The Preacher’s Wife” (1996), “The Bone Collector” (1999), “John Q” (2002), “Out of Time” (2003), “Man on Fire” (2004), “Deja Vu” (2006), “The Taking of Pelham 123” (2009), “The Book of Eli” (2010), “Safe House” (2012), “2 Guns” (2013), “The Equalizer” (2014).

These are the films you watch because you have a hangover and USA Network has a marathon. They don’t neatly fit into one of the other categories. They include bad and somewhat high-grossing movies; rather good but low-performing films; and mediocre movies that grossed a lot.

I’ll confess that I’ve watched only a few of these in their entirety. I’ve seen “Hombre en Llamas,” which is the Spanish dub of “Man on Fire,” because it was the only movie that my high school Spanish teacher would throw on during movie day, and I somehow have remembered the title of the film as “Hombre en Fuego” for the past 10 years so it didn’t work. Still, the voice cast was muy excelente. I did not learn much Spanish from the film as I assumed “Hombre en Fuego” translated to “‘Taken,’ But in Mexico and It’s Worse for Everyone Involved.”

Embedded in this group is the brief period in Washington’s life in which he was completely enamored with trains. If I ever get to interview Denzel Washington, my questions will be entirely about locomotives. From 2009 to 2010, most of Washington’s movies involved trains, including “The Taking of Pelham 123” and “Unstoppable.” The latter is probably my favorite Denzel Washington movie. He’s a crusty old train conductor just a few days away from retirement who teaches the basic elements of train operation — and life — to Chris Pine, a young punk train conductor who doesn’t respect the trade, when an unstoppable train hurtles toward a small hamlet. This is a catastrophe, as far as trains go, and one tough-as-nails, grizzled veteran train operator is the man who can bring an end to it.

For further reading on this, the Wikipedia entry is one of my favorite of all time, because it was obviously written by someone who is completely obsessed with trains given the paragraph-long diversions into train minutiae. In my head, that contributor was Denzel Washington.

The Titan

“A train that size going that fast, it will vaporize anything that gets in its way.”

— Frank, “Unstoppable”

Films: “Malcolm X” (1992), “Philadelphia” (1993), “Crimson Tide” (1995), “Courage Under Fire” (1996), “The Hurricane” (1999), “Remember the Titans” (2000), “Training Day” (2001), “The Manchurian Candidate” (2004), “Inside Man” (2006), “American Gangster” (2007), “Unstoppable” (2010), “Flight” (2012).

All these films made well more than $50 million and have a Rotten Tomatoes score higher than 70 percent. They’re the reasons that Denzel Washington remains one of the most bankable actors in Hollywood. They’re risky movies, but for different reasons. Some are action movies that are more cerebral than the Michael Bay canon (“Training Day” and “Inside Man”), while others are biopics that explore racial tension in the United States, specifically “Malcolm X” and “The Hurricane,” both of which earned Washington best actor Oscar nominations.

Washington won his second Oscar — this time in the category for leading men — for “Training Day” (2001). As a testament to his longevity, Washington has received at least one acting nomination in each decade since the 1980s. The most recent one came for “Flight” (2012), a film that makes Tom Hanks’s “Sully” look like “Airplane!” when it comes to complicated landings that have FAA consequences.

Most of all, this category shows just how wide Washington’s range is. He’s impossible to typecast. Compare him to his “Philadelphia” co-star: Has Tom Hanks ever played a bad guy? Not to knock Hanks — I am on record as a massive admirer — but Denzel Washington has played complicated characters who have rich backgrounds and inhabit moral gray areas. We’re able to watch him and have very conflicted opinions about his characters while still remaining invested in the story. A lot of the praise for the so-called “golden age of television” had to do with so many compelling antiheroes popping up on the small screen, but Denzel Washington has been doing that with ease on the big screen his whole career.

Walt Hickey was FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.