After multiple Oscars, Silver Bears, Golden Globes, Grammys and a Tony, Denzel Washington has earned the right to be called one of the greatest actors of our time. He could drop the surname and still be instantly recognisable – two syllables that guarantee acting excellence.
Key to his success is his ability to mesmerise an audience into seeing past his instantly recognisable face and observing only the character. It’s arguably the central tenet to any actor’s success, yet it is with unusual success and consistency that Denzel Washington has been able to shift from character to character seemingly with ease. This is an actor who rarely repeats himself.
The need for variety and the consistency of execution makes his sole franchise role all the more intriguing. Today sees the digital premiere for the third entry in The Equalizer series, with his Training Day director Antoine Fuqua ending the trilogy he and Washington began almost a decade ago. It’s the perfect place to begin our recommendations for some of our favourite Denzel’s (see?) roles.
1. The Equalizer Trilogy
If you’re of a certain age you’ll remember the ultraviolent ’80s US TV series of The Equalizer. It had an excellent theme (written by Stewart Copeland, drummer of The Police) and starred Wicker Man conflagree Edward Woodward. The journey to the big screen was a long one, almost ending with Russell Crowe playing Robert McCall for director Paul Haggis. When that fell through, the reins were quickly picked up by Fuqua with Washington eyed to play the titular badass.
Each of the films has deepened our connection with a character that could have easily fallen into the cliché trap of grizzled veteran shouts at cloud and kills people. And clearly there’s something in the mix that keeps the actor and his audience invested.
From the first film to the last there is something inherently magnetic about Washington’s McCall. The actor brings great gravitas to the role and Fuqua always ensures that there’s a depth and solidity to the entertainment. And it’s never without good reason; its moral compass may spin on occasions, but always finds true North.
Now is the perfect time to catch up with the third and final outing for Washington’s Equalizer, out on digital today.
2. Much Ado About Nothing
Thirty years (my god…) is a long time to cast your mind back to, and yet Kenneth Branagh’s early cinematic dalliances with The Bard still stand as exemplary illustrations of adaptation. There is genuine sense of joy from the film’s opening frames to its curtain call, and none seem to revel in this happiness more than Denzel Washington’s Don Pedro.
Fans of The Good Life would have their hearts skip a collective beat when Washington’s Don warmly embraces Richard Briers’ Leonato. But the wonderfully eclectic cast aside there has rarely been the chance for Washington to embrace the sunny side of life. And there’s nowhere as sunny nor as joyful as the Chianti hills in Tuscany…
Though the genius double act of Michael Keaton and Ben Elton get the laughs, Beatrice and Benedick (played by Emma Thompson and Branagh himself) snip and snipe at each other, and Robert Sean Leonard and (…and introducing…) Kate Beckinsale get the swoon-worthy romance, it is all set upon the solid foundation of Denzel Washington’s Don Pedro.
In truth, it is his command of the language of Shakespeare that invites the audience in. His speech upon Leonato’s welcome is the one of first times we are made aware that this is indeed in the original language of old Shakers. Washington delivers it with aplomb, and from that moment on we are free to indulge in one of the best adaptations of the play on screen.
3. The Tragedy of Macbeth
Yes, this is another Shakespeare adaptation, but these two households are both not very alike, in dignity or otherwise. For the first time a Coen solo (Joel in this instance) directorial outing was an atmospheric and stark rendition of one of The Bard’s greatest. Leading the film with Frances McDormand, Washington’s take on the Thane of Glamis was mesmeric and captivated audiences as best it could, releasing in the stunted aftermath of the COVID pandemic.
If you missed it then it’s well worth seeking out, not least for the weariness and the years Washington is able to bring to bear on the character. He is a man very much in a Coen-esque trap of his own creation, and there is a grim sense of inevitability to the portrayal. Washington excels, and this is a very different dance with The Bard to the one above. Worth your time.
For a man well in demand on stage and screen, it is not surprising that Washington has had to be selective about the stories he chooses to being to the big screen as a director. One of only four films he has directed is also one of his finest. Having led August Wilson’s play on Broadway with Viola Davis, it made sense for Washington to take the helm on a movie version, and he does so with enormous critical and commercial success.
In the thirty-one years since the play debuted the power and precision of the anger and conflict at its heart has not ebbed one bit. Washington’s own performance is central to the story, but it is the turn of Viola Davis that shines brighter than any other. Everyone else is in her shadow, and it is to the credit of Washington the director that she is fundamental to the success of the film version. The Academy agreed, and the actress took home a Best Actress Oscar. Hopefully we’ll see more of Denzel Washington behind the camera.
5. The Magnificent Seven/Roman J Israel Esq/The Taking of Pelham 1,2,3/Philadelphia
Ok, I am massively cheating here – recommending four films in one go. However, each of these films show a different side to the actor, and all come highly recommended. Those of us who can remember his meteoric rise from Glory to Cry Freedom to the incredible one-two punch of Malcolm X and Philadelphia will recall there was a genuine sense of excitement about what he would turn his hand to next.
A cursory glance at his IMDb page gives an indication of the range of the man as an actor, but it’s worth looking at the type of roles he takes on. From legal dramas to action thrillers (his work with the much missed Tony Scott is irresistible), from science fiction to Westerns – he’ll turn heads and stir emotions in any arena. And given he’s set to feature in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator 2 next year that’ll play to his advantage.
And we haven’t even mentioned The Hurricane, Man on Fire, American Gangster, Inside Man… you get the point.
The Equalizer 3
Buy or rent the home premiere on digital from Saturday 14th October.
The Equalizer 3 Synopsis
Since giving up his life as a government assassin, Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) has struggled to reconcile the horrific things he’s done in the past and finds a strange solace in serving justice on behalf of the oppressed. Finding himself surprisingly at home in Southern Italy, he discovers his new friends are under the control of local crime bosses. When CIA agent Emma Collins (Dakota Fanning) is called into the action, more underworld secrets are unearthed. As events turn deadly, McCall knows what he must do: become his friends’ protector by taking on the mafia.