Denzel Washington


Oscar Bait. Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase, which refers to movies that transparently use trite ploys in an attempt to snag that iconic gold statue reserved for Hollywood’s best. As perfect example, look no further than a film like The Butler, which was shamelessly littered with a host of notable actors, from Robin Williams to Jane Fonda. While Fences also boasts a laudable cast, it is not to be mistaken as Oscar bait. Adapted from playwright August Wilson’s critically acclaimed play, it features actor/director Denzel Washington (The Magnificent Seven) in a starring role and behind the camera for the third time. The part is a familiar one for Washington – a reprisal of the Broadway turn that earned him a Tony. Perhaps it was his comfort in the role that resulted in a tour-de-force performance, one of the best of Washington’s career.

Fences is set in the 1950s, giving a glimpse into the small world of Troy Maxson, a hardworking family man who thanklessly toils away as a sanitation worker to provide for his loving wife Rose (Viola Davis, Suicide Squad) and their teenaged son Cory (Jovan Adepo, The Leftovers). Troy’s simple, salt-of-the-earth nature belies a brash, booming personality that consumes any space he occupies. He is a constant source of joy and begrudging amusement for Rose and best friend Bono (Stephen Henderson, Two for One), who also works on the garbage truck. Troy has an adult son Lyons from a previous marriage, and he and Rose care intermittently for his brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson, The Purge: Election Year), who suffered a head injury during the War and became subsequently disabled. These players set the stage for the story and establish the foundation for Troy’s life.

Fences cannot be dissected thoroughly enough in this space, so I will just touch on the themes from the film that struck me as most memorable. When we first meet Troy it’s clear that he feels boxed in by life. He has frequent joy, but overall he feels frustrated and bitter about his current station, particularly when he ponders the lack of opportunity for growth at work or any prospect of financial prosperity. Home is a source of contentment because he loves his devoted wife, but home also represents the confining reality of missed opportunities. Sometimes life is a result of things you’ve made happen, and sometimes life seems like something that just happens to you whether you like it or not. Troy, who once had aspirations of playing baseball in the Negro leagues, is filled with bitterness and regret at the dreams that never came to fruition.

The better the film, the more I feel that I can write about it, so I’m forced here to give short shrift to many aspects of Fences that are worthy of further discussion, including the dynamic between father and son, selfishness and its resultant betrayal within a marriage, and the emotional, psychological underpinnings that give rise to it all. Ms. Davis has already won a Golden Globe for her performance, and she is in excellent company here. Washington seems to reserve his directing talents for only the richest African American stories (see Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters), and Fences continues that trend. This is a must-see for Denzel Washington fans, and doesn’t that include just about everyone? Grade: A.


The Equalizer

Some actors enjoy success early in their careers (Lupita N’yongo), while others experience a total resurgence after years of acting (Matthew McCounaghey, John Travolta). I’ve noticed that some legendary actors tend to be less selective in the second halves of their career, and the same could have been said for Denzel Washington (2 Guns), until 2012’s Flight, for which he received an Oscar nomination. I was beginning to think Washington’s best work was behind him, because although his efforts on screen are above reproach, the source material doesn’t always deliver. In The Equalizer, Washington reunites with Training Day director Antoine Fuqua (Olympus Has Fallen), for another gritty, entertaining tale.

Washington stars as Robert McCall, a quiet, unassuming middle-aged man who suffers from insomnia and obsessive compulsive disorder. His afflictions don’t impair him terribly, as he enjoys the contented existence of a normal job at the local home improvement store. His co-workers are fond of him, and he has an affable, positive manner with everyone he meets. His insomnia frequently finds him at the local diner at late hours, when most of Boston is counting sheep. Here he befriends Alina, a young “working” girl whose eyes are tinged with sadness and fear. When her pimp rousts her from the diner one night, it’s all he can do to restrain himself.

Eventually Alina’s profession catches up to her, and her Russian employers brutally retaliate against her for stepping out of line. Washington epitomizes the phrase “no more Mr. Nice Guy,” as he turns into a one man wrecking crew on a quest for vengeance. The playing field between a prostitute and her pimp is never a level one, but McCall is the equalizer and he has his own brand of justice. It’s obvious that he had a very different profession at one point in life, perhaps as a Navy Seal or CIA operative. He obliterates her pimp and his associates, but things get dicier as he fights his way up the criminal food chain.

The story was straightforward and simple. There weren’t many plot twists, and Washington’s singular focus was reminiscent of recent, similarly themed films. My movie companion noted the similarity between The Equalizer and Washington’s Man on Fire, though the latter movie featured greater depth of character, easily. That’s not a criticism, rather an observation. Washington was his charismatic self, but viewers looking for a total departure from his previous work won’t find it here. The simplicity of the script left me questioning McCall’s motivation. I’ll reference another film to make my point. If you’ve ever seen The Punisher, you know that the main character suffered a catastrophic loss when his entire family was massacred. THAT’S the type of thing to set a man on a course for vengeance.

Here, McCall’s motivation for his actions involved a stretch of the imagination, in my opinion. But hey, sometimes it’s a good thing when you don’t have a million different subplots taking you all over the place. Simple can be good. All in all, it was an entertaining film with some authentic fighting scenes and action sequences. The hand-to-hand combat element was fun to watch and added an air of realism. Washington didn’t stretch artistically, but he didn’t have to. He has the presence and ability to carry any movie, and he delivered here for Fuqua. Grade: B.

2 Guns

What do movies and sports have in common?  Match-ups.  It’s all about the match-ups baby.  Some cinematic pairings just get us excited, like the prospect of Mark Wahlberg (Pain & Gain) and Denzel Washington (Flight).  Washington is a living legend, and Wahlberg has cemented his place in modern cinema with critically acclaimed turns in films such as The Fighter and The Departed, for which he received Oscar nominations.  The action comedy is on the rise lately, and 2 Guns tantalized moviegoers with the rare opportunity to see Washington bring levity to a performance.  Unfortunately, even charismatic leading men can’t save a goofy script.

Washington and Wahlberg are Bobby Trench and Michael Stigman (Stig), respectively.  When we meet the pair, they are hatching a plot to rob a small bank to swindle a drug lord named Papi Greco (Edward James Olmos) out of his holdings.  They each have distinct reasons for wanting to pull this caper, but each is keeping the real reason a secret.  At first blush we think these two are criminals, after all who else would be robbing a bank?  In actuality they are both “undercover” in their own way, with Bobby being a DEA agent and Stig having firsthand experience with naval intelligence, despite the appearance of being a career criminal.

As each plays fast and loose with the law, the viewer is left wondering if our protagonists are corrupt or just deep undercover.  Bobby tries to convince fellow agent Deb (Paula Patton, Mission:Impossible – Ghost Protocol) that the robbery will serve as a way to nab Papi, while Stig is beholden to corrupt superior officers (James Marsden, Straw Dogs) within the Navy.  Their plan goes awry when they find out Papi’s bank vault yields a much larger heist than expected.  Not only do they need to ascertain the origin of the surplus money, they must ward off several factions who will stop at nothing to retrieve it.  Complicating matters is the fact that Bobby and Stig can’t really trust each other after having lied about their true identities.

I’ll start with the positive.  Washington and Wahlberg have tons of chemistry and good comedic timing.  I don’t have an issue with their performances at all; my issue is with the source material.  The storyline was simply foolish and muddled, and much of the characters behavior was far-fetched.  The screenplay marks the big screen debut for writer Blake Masters, who has previously worked in television.  Maybe his next effort will be more successful, although 2 Guns appears poised to have a solid opening weekend.  Nevertheless, it takes more than two talented leading men to make a successful movie, even if the pairing looks like a “slam dunk.”  Even a dynamic duo like Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro aren’t a sure-fire success if the script is wanting (see Righteous Kill).  If those two legends can team up for a dud, no tandem is above reproach.  The rest of the cast did little to bolster the movie, and it will not be remembered as a summer standout.  I’m not saying it was horrible, just very mediocre – in spite of its two stars.  Grade: C

This article first appeared at Poptimal and was reprinted with permission



I’m getting a little repetitive in my reviews here lately, but it can’t be helped. There’s just some good stuff coming out of Hollywood lately, and the last few movies I’ve seen have been amazing.  Flight was another recent addition to what’s been a great year in film.  Denzel Washington (Safe House) is one of the preeminent actors of our generation, obviously.  We already know that he’s talented and marketable, but I think that the further along and more settled an actor becomes in their career, the less likely they are to take risks or to stretch themselves.  Washington has made a career out of being the hero, and when I initially saw the trailer for Flight, I assumed it would be more of the same.  Like, you saved people from a train (Unstoppable), and now you’re going to save people on a plane.  Been there, done that.  But after watching Flight, I was simply blown away.

Washington stars as Whip Whitaker, a seasoned commercial pilot whose experience, knowledge, and gumption make him one of the best.  While he’s in complete control in the cockpit, his personal life on the ground is much rockier.  He has a contentious relationship with his ex-wife and is estranged from their teenaged son.  The movie begins in a hotel room with Whip GETTING. IT. IN.  I mean, whatever you’re into – he had it; pick your poison.  Coke? Check. Drink? Check. Weed? Check.  I thought he was just having a good time, so imagine my surprise when he and his lovely bedmate mention their impending flight!  I like revealing, expository opening scenes, and director Robert Zemeckis (Cast Away) expertly told us all we needed to know about Whip in five short minutes.  Well, almost all we needed to know.

Let’s jump to the actual flight, which includes one of the most intense scenes I’ve ever witnessed on the silver screen.  The real trouble starts when the plane takes an unexpected nosedive about 20 minutes into the flight.  Folks, let me pause here.  This scene was nothing short of amazing.  I have to tip my hat to Zemeckis for this because I’ve never been so riveted by a single movie scene, and I swear I’ve seen it all at this point.  My movie buddy clutched my thigh, and my eyes began to water.  That’s how amazing this crash scene was.  Everything was depicted perfectly, from the panic and terror of the passengers, to the bravery and sacrifice of the flight attendants as Whip once again showed his mettle.  To stabilize the plane, he inverts it…and they fly upside down!  The plane levels off and he rights the aircraft, lessening the inevitable impact of the crash while lives hung in the balance.  To put it simply…Whip is The Motherfucking Man.

I’ve chosen my words carefully and tried not to reveal anything that I don’t think you’d already have gleaned from the trailer.  Whip’s aviation abilities are above reproach, but his pre-flight behavior was indicative of a man with a serious problem.  After the crash, that behavior is scrutinized and it’s revealed over the course of the film that Whip is a raging alcoholic.  The depths of addiction know no bounds, and I’m speaking from experience.  If you’ve never struggled with it or known someone who has, some of the things Washington’s character does will seem unbelievable, but I thought it was spot-on.  Anyone who has dealt with addiction knows there’s a dark place you have to go before you can vanquish whatever demon threatens you – and that place is called Rock Bottom.  I was greatly impressed with Washington’s ability to portray a character that was deeply flawed, yet sympathetic.  His obvious addiction is expertly juxtaposed with the heroism and skill he displayed on the flight.  As a viewer, you want to despise the recklessness of his actions one minute and applaud him the next.  That conflicting duality of his personality made for an excellent film.  We are the sum of our parts, but it was hard to define Whip Whitaker at times.

Flight literally took my breath away, it was that good.  Washington is a force to be reckoned with and he swagged all over this joint.  His sex symbol status is different now, and I could have done without the shot of his booty, but he is still handsome and oozes charisma.  I’ve never seen him in such a fluid role, where the dichotomy between right and wrong and hero and villain becomes blurred by circumstance.  Actress Kelly Reilly (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) was also a revelation in her role.  I’d never heard of her before this, but she was a wonderful counterbalance to Whip’s addictive personality, as they forged a tentative romance that never really had a fair shot.  Go see this movie! Grade: A.

Safe House

Denzel Washington (Unstoppable) has built an immensely successful career that is both prolific and praiseworthy.  His body of work includes biopics, period pieces, action movies, and dramas alike.  He’s an award winning A-list actor that has managed to retain some degree of realism and accessibility, despite the well-deserved fame.  However, Washington is not immune from being pigeonholed like any other actor who routinely chooses similar roles.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because he does it well.  I’m just saying, whether it’s The Taking of Pelham 123, Déjà Vu, Man on Fire, or the aforementioned Unstoppable  – we’ve seen it before: Washington saves the day.  Safe House features Washington in a departure from his customary heroic roles, though he winds up an unlikely protagonist by the time the credits roll.

Washington stars as Tobin Frost, a rogue CIA agent who has been off the grid for years.   He resurfaces seeking amnesty at a U.S. consulate after a deal goes wrong and his criminal counterparts begin deadly pursuit.  Next he is transported to a government safe house manned by novice agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds, The Change-Up).  Frost was once an elite operative, trained in psychological manipulation and interrogation.  Now he is public enemy no. 1, a criminal so elusive that it seems the only way he could be caught is if he surrendered.  Frost is in possession of a data chip containing valuable classified info, and there are several factions who will stop at nothing to get it; but now he is in the custody of the CIA equivalent of the mailroom guy.  When the safe house is ambushed, Weston is faced with some tough choices.  He must secure the high level asset without getting himself killed.  Meanwhile Frost is yammering the whole time, planting little seeds of doubt in Weston’s head about the Agency, causing him to question the circumstances surrounding their fortuitous coup of the nation’s top traitor.

Safe House featured Washington at his charismatic best.  There was one early scene where he practically radiated off the screen, eyes twinkling, head cocked to the side.  “Don’t I look good?” he asks another character.  “Yes,” says the woman sitting next to me in the theater.  I had to chuckle.  He’s still got “it,” but I’ll admit I found some of the physical scenes a little unrealistic, especially one where he runs from rooftop to rooftop in hard bottom shoes.  Safe House is rightfully marketed as a Denzel Washington flick, as the rest of the cast dwindled by comparison.  Reynolds did a capable job as the wet-behind-the ears newbie, but it’s hard to hold your own next to Washington.  He wasn’t bad, but he just seemed a step behind Denzel, both in terms of character and performance.  Vera Farmiga (Source Code) is always pretty good, but her role was a basic one.

Safe House was an enjoyable movie for me, mainly because of Denzel Washington.  He carried the movie, and he’s the main attraction.  I thought he was worth the price of admission, though the movie itself wasn’t as smart as some of his others.  It was a little formulaic and not very suspenseful.  It’s made clear from the outset that Frost is being set up and who’s responsible.  The movie’s so-called twist hardly qualifies as a surprise, and the plot wasn’t terribly intricate.  Just sit back and bask in the Denzeliness. Grade: B+