Very few Hollywood names hold more sway than Denzel Washington. Over the last 20+ years, Washington has carved out a place of great esteem for himself amongst average moviegoers and film nerds alike. In an era in which the power of a name has seen a precipitous drop-off, Washington is still able to pack theaters with the best of them. If his box office reliability weren’t enough, the man has also attained critical adoration and award committee acclaim, having earned five Oscar nominations (and two wins) along with a host of other honors. Perhaps his greatest asset has been his ability to mix his roles. He has jumped from the heavy material found in Malcolm X to more popcorn-y flicks like Man on Fire and back again and often times, the depth and weight of his performances can transform a would-be blockbuster something much more significant, such as Remember the Titans. For my money, Washington belongs in an elite class of actors who can proudly refer to themselves as, The Movie Star’s Movie Star. At 58 years old, he can essentially do any movie he wants to without jeopardizing his integrity because he will always come back around to do something important when the right role arrives. As one of my favorite actors in the business, it is with great pleasure that I delve into the Collected Works of Denzel Washington and look back on his fantastic career. (Note: If you are new to this feature, the object of The Collected Works is to rank a given performer’s films from worst to first. These ranks pertain to the films first, performance second.)
Movies I haven’t seen: Cry Freedom, For Queen and Country, The Mighty Quinn, Heart Condition, Mo’ Better Blues, Mississippi Masala, Much Ado About Nothing, Devil in a Blue Dress
30. Virtuosity (1995) – Lt. Parker Barnes Rotten Tomatoes score: 33% There are any number of films from this time period that played on our obsession with the future of the Internet. Virtuosity is easily one of the worst to fall into that category.
29. The Preacher’s Wife (1996) – Dudley Rotten Tomatoes score: 62% The RT score would lead me to believe that perhaps I’m a little too hard on this movie but man, I hated The Preacher’s Wife. I think it was supposed to be fun and uplifting but instead I find it to be off putting.
28. Out of Time (2003) – Matt Lee Whitlock Rotten Tomatoes score: 65% To be honest, it’s difficult to distinguish Out of Time from several of Washington’s other cop roles but I’ve always thought this one was one of his weakest. I really did not like the plotline on this one. Seemed lazy.
27. John Q (2002) – John Q. Archibald Rotten Tomatoes score: 23% This represents Washington’s lowest-rated film in his prime and I tend to agree. The tone jumps from scene to scene and John Q. also had the misfortune of following in the wake of Training Day.
26. The Great Debaters (2007) – Melvin B. Tolson Rotten Tomatoes score: 79% Perhaps I should give this one another go considering the relatively good reputation it has with both critics and viewers. I, on the other hand, thought it was cloying and uninspired. A semi-knockoff of Remember the Titans but without the football.
25. The Manchurian Candidate (2004) – Major Bennett Marco Rotten Tomatoes score: 81% I was astounded to see the general approval given this film when I started doing the research. I thought everyone hated The Manchurian Candidate and now that I know many people do not, I am quite confused. For me, this is the definition of a bad, pointless remake.
24. Unstoppable (2010) – Frank Rotten Tomatoes score: 86% This is another one that I don’t really understand from an appeal standpoint. I was bored out of my mind in Unstoppable and many of the “exciting” plot points just made me roll my eyes. I enjoyed the chemistry between Washington and Chris Pine but that’s where the virtues of this film end for me.
23. The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009) – Walter Garber Rotten Tomatoes score: 55% Slightly more entertaining than Unstoppable but probably a worse movie when it’s all said and done. My predisposition to a dislike of all things related to John Travolta does not help its case, however.
22. The Siege (1998) – Anthony Hubbard Rotten Tomatoes score: 45% I just watched The Siege for the first time all the way through and I was thoroughly unimpressed. The scenes involving Washington were solid enough but the rest of this movie is kind of an overdone mess.
21. Ricochet (1991) – Nick Styles Rotten Tomatoes score: 73% You could make the case that Ricochet is what put Washington on the map as a leading man. I caught this movie recently for the first time in years and while it is wayyyyy over the top, it stands up as a thoroughly decent action flick for a rainy afternoon.
20. The Pelican Brief (1993) – Gray Grantham Rotten Tomatoes score: 52% One of the weaker Grisham adaptations during a period in which the industry was OBSESSED with law-related films, but I would argue that when it came out, The Pelican Brief was a solid film. It just doesn’t hold up well.
19. The Bone Collector (1999) – Lincoln Rhyme Rotten Tomatoes score: 28% I haven’t seen Bone Collector in a very long time and I don’t intend to as I’m sure it would plummet down this list. But this was a staple rental for my friends and I in our later high school years and I refuse to cheapen its memory by actually re-watching it and noticing its (many) flaws.
18. Antwone Fisher (2002) – Dr. Jerome Davenport Rotten Tomatoes score: 79% This is the sort of film that should only be viewed one time. It caught me completely off guard and I was both impressed and uplifted by the story and the quality acting. Once you watch it two or three times, however, it starts to lose its initial appeal.
17. Flight (2012) – Captain Whip Whitaker Rotten Tomatoes score: 76% Half of Flight is excellent and almost that entire half is due to Washington’s performance. But the movie as a whole left me wanting and a little underwhelmed.
16. Safe House (2012) – Tobin Frost Rotten Tomatoes score: 53% I’m sure most people think I’m crazy for listing Safe House ahead of Flight but that’s why they pay me to make the tough calls. No doubt that Flight has much greater ambition and tries hard to be a great film but while Safe House aimed much lower, I think it hit its mark on the nose whereas Flight missed wide. This movie is highly entertaining and I found Washington to be thoroughly enjoyable.
15. Déjà Vu (2006) – Doug Carlin Rotten Tomatoes score: 55% I just re-watched Déjà Vu recently and while the execution isn’t perfect, I’m still impressed by the attempt. A great idea and very close to one of those films I spoke of earlier that Washington takes to higher levels than it would have achieved without him. Almost.
14. Crimson Tide (1995) – Lt. Commander Ron Hunter Rotten Tomatoes score: 87% It has been ages since I’ve seen Crimson Tide and I don’t think I have the proper appreciation for it. At that time, there was only room for one submarine-related war movie in my heart and that space belonged to The Hunt for Red October. I intend to revisit this one soon.
13. Courage Under Fire (1996) – Lt. Col. Nathaniel Sterling Rotten Tomatoes score: 85% For some reason, I vividly remember being impacted by the trailers for this film and desperately seeking it out even though it was most assuredly not geared toward a 13 year old kid as I was at the time. This is a very strong film that features some excellent performances, including Washington’s.
12. The Book of Eli (2010) – Eli Rotten Tomatoes score: 48% There are a litany of issues at work within Eli and a number of miscalculations were made during its production. I could pick it to pieces if I chose to. However, there are many elements of Eli that I absolutely love and as such, I choose to overlook the many, many flaws. This film tends to grow on me the more I see of it.
11. He Got Game (1998) – Jake Shuttlesworth Rotten Tomatoes score: 80% Washington himself is incredibly good in this one. The movie as a whole doesn’t quite live up to his standard. Still, while He Got Game is a flawed sports film, it’s still very entertaining and earns points for rewatchability.
10. Fallen (1998) – John Hobbes Rotten Tomatoes score: 40% Much like The Bone Collector, this is a movie that I watched many times as a teenager and my fond memories have perhaps clouded my judgment. Still, I think the ideas at play in Fallen are awesome and I still love the conclusion.
9. Malcolm X (1992) – Malcolm X Rotten Tomatoes score: 91% This is where this list gets tough. From a performance standpoint, Malcolm X is one of Washington’s finest hours; perhaps even his absolute best. But the movie itself is extremely overdone and unnecessarily long. I wish Spike Lee had made this film 10 years later after he figured out how to make a movie instead of just a statement.
8. Man on Fire (2004) – John Creasy Rotten Tomatoes score: 38% I have trouble understanding why Man on Fire received such poor reviews. Is it great? No. But is it a quality action film? I say most certainly. It is also more intense than many of Washington’s action films and packs a serious punch.
7. Philadelphia (1993) – Joe Miller Rotten Tomatoes score: 77% The bulk of the attention paid to Philadelphia is given to Tom Hanks’ incredible performance and rightly so. That said, Washington’s is also a great portrayal and while the film itself doesn’t quite hold up twenty years later, it was incredibly impactful at the time of its release.
6. Inside Man (2006) – Detective Keith Frazier Rotten Tomatoes score: 86% Very few films from the last decade have caught me by surprise the way Inside Man did. I went in expecting a throw away heist film and came out having seen a supremely well-crafted and highly enjoyable cops and robbers flick. Despite all of the accolades his earlier work earned, I think Inside Man and 25th Hour stand out as Spike Lee’s best work.
5. American Gangster (2007) – Frank Lucas Rotten Tomatoes score: 80% The only problem with American Gangster is that it’s not exactly exciting. It’s a gangster film that plays out like a biopic and as a result, you have to be in just the right mood to appreciate it. The battle of wits, as it were, between Washington and Russell Crowe is fantastic, however.
4. The Hurricane (1999) – Rubin Hurricane Carter Rotten Tomatoes score: 83% It pains me that so many people have forgotten The Hurricane and its many virtues. It is a difficult film to watch at times but if I’m being honest, I think it stands as the film that Malcolm X could have been. It also contains one of Washington’s very best performances.
3. Remember the Titans (2000) – Coach Herman Boone Rotten Tomatoes score: 73% I’ve probably seen Remember the Titans more times than any other film on this list and I’m still impressed by it. Sure, there’s a hokey element to it and in the interest of making Remember the Titans appealing to a wide audience, perhaps the events are a bit on the nose at times. But it’s still an inspiring film and it treats its medium, football, with great respect.
2. Glory (1989) – Trip Rotten Tomatoes score: 93% Like most members of my generation, Glory was a significant part of my education in history. It’s one of the few films that we were shown in school and no one ever complained because it took seven full days to watch. I haven’t seen this one in a while now but it still resonates and stands out as an incredible film. Glory contains a performance by Washington that won him a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor trophy.
1. Training Day (2001) – Alonzo Harris Rotten Tomatoes score: 72% I consider Training Day to be the greatest cop movie of its era. It is gritty, it is tough, it is realistic when it needs to be and gloriously over the top when the situation calls for it. The battle between good and evil, or perhaps naivety and streetwise experience, is fantastic and I’ve always loved how much the movie manages to cram into one day. It never lets up. The driving force behind Training Day, though, is Washington’s TREMENDOUS performance that goes against type. Harris is one of the best villains of the decade and Washington’s willingness to set aside his good guy act for the right role demonstrates just how talented and versatile he really is. His work here earned him the first Best Actor Academy Award ever won by an African American and it is still one of my favorite performances ever.
Well that’s how Denzel Washington’s career breaks down for me. Please feel free to share your own thoughts below!