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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Frenzy on the Wall: The Unstoppable Mr. Washington

I’m going to check out Unstoppable this weekend because it looks like dumb fun and I actually find Tony Scott to be a much more entertaining filmmaker than his brother, but sadly, seeing the latest Denzel Washington film isn’t exactly a draw for me any longer.

I used to believe Washington was like a modern day Gary Cooper: handsome, charismatic and able to excel in a variety of genres. Watch him in Devil in a Blue Dress and see how effortlessly cool he was, how smooth the performance is; better yet, watch him in He Got Game, playing a difficult character who has a desire for redemption and freedom. Actors play characters like that all the time, but many of them are unwilling to mine the depths that Washington did, to go to the dark places he went to in that film.

But lately, Washington has settled into a bit of an “easy” rhythm and seems uncomfortable playing outside a certain type. He plays both villains and heroes, but he plays them in the same way; there is no longer any shading to his portrayals, no subtlety. Washington has been reduced to an actor who merely yells instead of acting or genuinely emoting, and while it’s true that he often speaks louder rather than expressing his characters’ emotions in a more nuanced way, I think the problem runs deeper than that.

My bigger issue with Washington is that for the last several years, he seems to be rehashing characters he’s played before. With Unstoppable, he’s once again playing the grizzled old veteran who’s “too old for this shit” and trying to help fix a problem related to a train (see: last year’s Taking of Pelham 1 2 3).

His character in Inside Man was another law enforcement character in the mold of what I’ve seen him do in everything from Ricochet to The Siege to Out of Time (or Virtuosity or The Bone Collector or Déjà Vu or Fallen … wow, this guy has played a lot of cops and FBI Agents!

On the other hand, in The Great Debaters Washington played a mentor and motivator who reminded me a lot of what he brought to the table in Antwone Fisher and even Remember the Titans. I’d like to see Washington take on more of those kind of roles.

The thing about Washington that compels me is that he’s still fascinating to watch; even when he’s playing retreads of roles he’s already done, he’s still got this innate charisma. It might be what frustrates me the most about Washington’s career choices: the dude is a natural born movie star, and I wish he would follow George Clooney’s model a bit more and try to make movies that have ideas rather than explosions, with characters who have complexities rather than long monologues. And when Clooney does a big blockbuster film, it’s usually something a bit more clever than the average Hollywood movie.

I was maybe seven or eight years old and I was home from school, sick, when I first saw Denzel Washington in a movie. I flipped through the two or three movie channels we had (and that was the premium package!), as I often did and Glory was on. I saw that Matthew Broderick and Cary Elwes were in it and at that time in my life, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Princess Bride were probably my favorite movies, so I decided to watch what I thought would be a boring movie about the Civil War.

I happened to like the movie a lot – still do – but what really amazed me was this guy Denzel Washington, who stole the movie. Clearly a lot of folks agreed with me and he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for the performance. But watching that movie now, what astounds me the most about Washington is how full of vitality he was, how passionate he seemed, compared to how he is in most of his more recent roles. It’s like watching game film of Michael Jordan in his 1990 and comparing it to his stint with the Washington Wizards in the early 2000s.

It makes me wonder if some movie stars just lose a step as they get older, if sometimes they feel jaded by the process and don’t feel like they need to work as hard to get inside their characters. It seems actors like Johnny Depp, Robert Downey Jr. and Denzel Washington, who were so exciting as young actors, have now settled into a certain style and rhythm that they feel comfortable with. To keep going with the basketball analogy, it’s like they know all the veteran tricks and try to get by with their savvy rather than their raw skills. But is it because these skills fade or is it because they just don’t try as hard?

Clooney seems to be getting better and better, ditto for Matt Damon, Penelope Cruz, and a whole host of others. So what is it that leads some actors to age like a fine wine and others to turn to vinegar? I suppose it’s impossible to really know.

What I’d really like Denzel Washington to do is to work with Spike Lee again. Inside Man was perhaps not their finest collaboration, but I think Washington gives two of his best performances in Lee films: He Got Game and Malcolm X. I also thought he was excellent in Philadelphia (he’s actually much better than Tom Hanks, who won the Oscar opposite Washington), The Hurricane and Mississippi Masala.

The connecting thread with all of the great Denzel Washington performances seems to be that he’s good when he’s working with directors who coax great performances of their actors. Jonathan Demme, Norman Jewison, Mira Nair, Spike Lee — all of them are wonderful actors’ directors. Lately, Washington has been working with the Scott brothers, himself, and the Hughes Brothers. All of them fine filmmakers – Washington makes solid old-school feel-good films – but none of them would I consider “actors’ directors.”

I wasn’t the biggest fan of his Training Day performance. I thought he went too far over-the-top, especially in the last reel, and that it was a classic example of Washington yelling rather than acting. However, I enjoyed that he was willing to take a risk and I like the chemistry he had with Ethan Hawke, one of the most underrated actors out there (one day I’ll write my love letter column about him). And I think Washington certainly does well when he’s matched up with strong co-stars.

Unfortunately, the last few strong co-stars he’s had haven’t spent a lot of screen-time with him (think Travolta in Pelham or Russell Crowe in American Gangster or Clive Owen in Inside Man). In fact, the last performance of Washington’s I really enjoyed was in Man on Fire and I think it’s because he was fantastic and warm in the scenes with Dakota Fanning. And it was a role that required him to be quiet rather than loud.

I happen to like Chris Pine a lot and I find him to be charming, so I have hopes that their chemistry will help Unstoppable be more than just another shrug-inducing film in Washington’s filmography. But, really, my hope is that Washington finds a project that he’s truly passionate about again, that makes him want to be as hungry as he was during those early years when every performance was a knockout. Denzel Washington seems to be unstoppable … I just want him to bring his considerable talent to the right projects.

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9 Responses to “Frenzy on the Wall: The Unstoppable Mr. Washington”

  1. Jeremy says:

    I’m just surprised that Denzel is doing ANOTHER movie involving Tony Scott and a train. Why isn’t his agent like, “Denzel, man, you can’t make two Tony Scott train movies in a row!” This is like what would happen is Russell Crowe said to Ridley Scott right after Gladiator, “Ridley, we have to make another movie about a really moody outsider who has to take justice into his own hands and fight people in a time very far removed from our own!”

    Oh wait…Robin Hood…which I didn’t see. For obvious reasons.

  2. NickF says:

    Denzel has been doing better internationally. That’s a nice thing to see also.

  3. Greg says:

    Denzel hasn’t lost anything, Noah. The guy just won a gosh darned Tony award for Best Actor, 4 months ago. On stage. Where real actors….act. Has George Clooney even been on a real live stage? Book Of Eli was a decent departure as well this year.

    You overrate Clooney because comparitavely speaking, he’s new. Denzel has been a major player in films since about 1987. Clooney has been a major player since about 1998. That’s a good decade differential. Trust me, in 10 years time, you’ll be complaining about how no Clooney character feels “brand new” to you. You’ll be writing this article about Gorgeous George sometime around 2019….pencil it in. It’s the way of the world

    Simply put, people often get bored of actors who have been around for a long, long time. It’s just human nature. Sometimes it’s the fault of the actor for not even trying anymore (case in point, Robert DeNiro), but in the case of Washington or Johnny Depp or Robert Downey jr…..the actor is not at fault. These guys are not slacking or getting lazy. People are just entirely familar with what they bring to the table, after nearly 30 years in the limelight (for all 3), so we start taking them for granted. Personally, I think Washington is nearly always excellent and nuanced and all the rest of that jazz, regardless of the material around him. I don’t see him as a DeNiro, who simply stopped caring about making an effort. Someone like Clooney simply has not got that talent. Maybe the paucity of great leading film roles for an Afriican-American male in his 50’s has something to do with it. It’d be naive to pretend he has the same choice of parts as Pitt or Clooney. Look at the last roles he played on stage (Fences, Richard III, Julius Ceasar) compared to film, and it might suggest that he’s better off in theatre if he wants those meaty award winning “actory” roles that you think he should be doing on film. Maybe Tony Scott is simply the main guy offering him work these days. Haven’t heard him turning down any major names recently.

    That’s another mistake people make. They treat Washington like a young man, simply because he doesn’t look that old. The dude is pushing 60. He’s practically an old man. The fact that you can compare him to 40 year old Matt Damon, and 36 year old Penelope Cruz as if they are of a similar generation is ridiculous. Most stars of Washington’s “vintage” are barely relevant as leading men anymore. I think he’s held to a pretty high standard, considering he’s looking more and more like the Eastwood of his generation (ie that last movie star that will be left standing, when the rest have become irrelevant).

    Denzel isn’t a young man, and I suspect he knows it. He’s only got so many blockbusting action pics left in him. He’s got many years of tedious, slow moving, Mira Nair Nair directed Oscarbaiting “serious drama” left in him, that should last him all the way up till his 80’s, when he can star in a remake of Driving Miss Daisy and win his 5th Oscar. We’ll probably look back at his Tony Scott action packed era as one of his “Golden periods”….back when Denzel was “fun”.

  4. Greg says:

    Oh….and Training Day was a brilliant performance, that actually gets better on rewatch. If you think that performance was merely “yelling” as opposed to an incredibly skilled portrait of a machieavellian figure….then I think you are missing out. There are so many layers to that character, that it’s ridiculous.

    The scene towards the end…the whole “King Kong ain’t got” scene… it again. It’s bravado, masquerading as fear. The character, Alonzo is afraid. And Denzel somehow managages to communicate his fear, while still acting like he’s the king of the streets. That’s how nuanced an actor he is. If you don’t want to see it, then it’s not there. But for me, Washington’s great stregnth as an actor is the layers of complexity he brings to pretty much all his roles, even the paper thin ones (Deja Vu, I’m looking at you).

  5. Jess says:

    I would understand what you mean about him doing the same type of movies if the plots didn’t differ even slightly. THIS particular movie is based on true events from 2001 & they’ve been trying to make said movie since 2004. I’m a big fan of Mr. Washington, so I intended to go see it anyways…but the “true story” aspect of this makes it more enticing to me. He seems to perform roles based on actual events (The Hurricane, American Gangster, Malcolm X, Glory) better than fictional characters. Should prove to be entertaining.

  6. Keil Shults says:

    Denzel and Johnny Depp are great actors who have become complacent, all too happy to coast by on their name and looks. Anyone who says otherwise has an agenda. I’m not going to say that Denzel acts badly in his recent movies, because I simply don’t know. I have almost no desire to see any of the films he’s made since Training Day, especially the actioners that all seem to blend together. I did see Inside Man, which I liked, though I’m not sure I recall him bringing anything unique to the table. It’s been a good while since I saw it, though I’m sure the script, Spike, and Clive had as much, if not not more, to do with its success than Denzel. Even American Gangster, which I almost forgot about, was underwhelming. Maybe he’s just glad to have found a niche and doesn’t desire to spread his wings. I’d say that it’d be nice to see him try something dramatically different and unexpected, but the truth is I no longer really care what he does. He’s just another pretty face until he proves otherwise.

    I should add that Depp has not only been choosing too many remakes and sequels, but that none of them have been good movies. I found the first Pirates film somewhat entertaining, and Depp was obviously amusing in it, but the two sequels were just ridiculous and tedious to sit through. The fact that a fourth film is being made really annoys the piss out of me. I thought that damn franchise was over and done with, and I’m sure it would have been if Depp had the balls to say, “No.” But money is money. What’s worse is that audiences continue to be dumb enough to eat up those movies. And while I didn’t care for the new Wonka or Alice films (Burton’s a whole other story), I actually found Depp to be (just about) the worst things in them. I realize that Burton must have agreed to let him act that way, and maybe he even told him how to approach each character, but either way I found both roles incredibly bothersome. And The Tourist, despite being directed by the person responsible for the wonderful The Lives of Others, looks to be another misfire. Hopefully Rum Punch will be a step in the right direction.

    And maybe Clooney will follow a same path in the next ten years as Denzel, but he’s making much more of this time in his career than Denzel did. He’s working with a wide variety of great directors and isn’t afraid to change his appearance or play a dullard when it’s required. I don’t really love Clooney’s acting, even in his best films, but I certainly admire the man and his choices. And when he wants to, he can deliver strong, assured performances (Out of Sight, Michael Clayton, Up in the Air, etc.).

  7. Brian Sanders says:

    I agree with you 100% about Denzil. I’ve been saying that for years about him. I’m not say that he’s isn’t good becasue with movies like Malcom X, He Got Game, The Hurricane, Glory he hits them out of the park. He can bring a watchable level to a movie even if it crappy (Critial Heart,Virtuosity)but he needs to be pushed to that next level becasue he can get very lazy with that smile and sparkle in his eyes, just like Tom Cruise who is also like that. I also thought that Training Day and Inside Man started out strong but it painted itself into a corner and fell apart just like Bad LT(original), and Gran Torino did. When I seen the preview to Unstoppable I nearly laugh, I thought it was a joke from AMC fake trailers about being quite during the movie, I don’t know what to make of it. I was saying over and over why did you take this movie. I could almost put him with Nic Cage as to why keep making bad to passable film when you know you arebetter than that. Except Denzil bad films are still entertaining and Nic are just god awful.

  8. Keil Shults says:

    Yeah, Nic Cage is a total question mark. How can the guy from Raising Arizona and Leaving Las Vegas be the same guy who dished out all these other terrible movies from the past 15 years or so?

  9. Danielle says:

    Love Ethan Hawke too! Write column about him soon, please!

Frenzy On Column

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon