So I caught “Safe House” the other day. I figured for my first blog post I might as well write about a recent movie experience. This is also a film that, despite the mostly 3* middle-of-road reviews at the time of it’s initial release, I was feeling pretty eager to see.
The reason for my eagerness? I fucking love Denzel Washington. The man who brought us Malcolm X and Lt. Commander Ron Hunter may well be my favourite actor of all time. I don’t believe there has been anything he has done that I didn’t like.
A few years ago, around the time of “American Gangster”, I was having a discussion with my sister-in-law’s boyfriend (a fellow movie buff – and who from this day forth shall be known on this blog as ‘Big Al’) about Denzel. We had been having our usual catch up conversation of “seen anything good lately?” and I was expressing my recent enjoyment of “American Gangster”, which led to a wider discussion of Denzel’s work. As we talked it became quickly apparent that Denzel had a few mediocre flicks under his belt, but, as the debate deepened it was obvious that, in fact, a few of his movies were actually pretty shit, and were pulled out of desperate shitness into higher quality territory simply by the sheer undeniable watchability of Mr D. Washington. Our conversation came to a close with two simple conclusions; that Denzel is extremely talented & watchable, and that his mere presence can make a bad film good.
Want an example? Here’s a few, in no particular order; “Deja-vu”, “The Fallen”, The Seige”, “The Inside Man”, “Out of Time”, “The Manchurian Candidate”,“Unstoppable” and “The Great Debators”. All of these are pretty predictable, by the numbers flicks with very little real substance to them, not a blockbuster or mega-hit among them, but they all become so much more because, frankly, Denzel raises the quality of the movie through his performance.
Now, there’s no denying that some of his performances in the aforementioned movies were possibly a little too easy for Mr Washington. Some may criticise the fact that a certain type of character are undemanding for Denzel and can be essentially “dialled-in”. I’m not inclined to give this criticism much stock.So what, his performances are still of the highest quality and damn entertaining. When you consider the range of characters that Denzel can effortlessly slip into one can only conclude that his abilities qualify him for legendary status. How many other actors can comfortably and competently deliver a scholarly figure of authority (“Remember the Titans”, “The Great Debators”),a cool-as-fuck badass (“SafeHouse”, “Man on Fire”, “American Gangster”), an intelligent, street smart cop (“Training Day”, “Out of Time”, “Inside Man”) or an unexpected, everyman hero (“The Taking of Pelham 123”, “Unstoppable”, “John Q”).
Take his character in “Book of Eli”. An Everyman hero pulling badass moves with a machete & a 9mm, surviving against all odds on a mission from God. Whew. There’s more to that archetypal mash-up than meets the eye and requires a pretty complex actor to really understand it and bring some game. (spot the clever meta-reference.)
Denzel is so skilled in his craft that, unlike many other actors, he has a staple of characters that are broad and have substance that, yes, he can deliver without breaking a sweat, and we shouldn’t begrudge him it, we should celebrate it.
Going back to “American Gangster”, let’s dwell on Denzel’s performance as Frank Lucas for a second. A role as an intelligent, seductive and charismatic gang leader is certainly not a challenging one for Denzel to pull out of the staple by any means, but he brings so much depth to the character it becomes something much more layered and meaningful. Frank Lucas is seen as a violent, threatening man and yet he only actually performs three acts of violence in the film; the opening scene (burning a man), the public execution of a rival, and the physical disciplining of an disrespectful foot soldier. Much of the real action-y stuff is driven by the Russell Crowe parallel plot. What Denzel expertly does, is juxtapose the charming & seductive power of Frank Lucas against the brutal, explosive violence of the man to create a deep sense of dark, menace and power around the character that makes every moment he’s on screen mesmerising.
Some could argue that my defence of Denzel in this blog post is simply me focusing too much on a small criticism of Denzel’s movies and zealously zoning in on what are relevantly minor comments by high-thought critics. That’s probably true but I make no excuses for it – I think he’s that great.
Being a fan, and recently unemployed, I went on a bit of a Denzel marathon recently. One thing about Denzel’s back catalogue that may go a bit unnoticed, mostly because a Denzel Washington film has become labelled a “Denzel Washington movie”, is the variety in it. Historical dramas, action movies, cops & robbers, biopics, courtroom dramas, Sci-Fi & Fantasy, thrillers, mysteries and not one franchise or sequel in sight.
So, what about “SafeHouse”? How was it? I liked it. It WAS pretty predictable, and, as I’ve said above, pretty straight forward roles for Denzel and Ryan. It had some great little action set pieces, including a neat little car chase,some cool shoot outs, and a brutal hand-to-hand face off, all which is expertly filmed and edited to make it suitably exhilarating. The actual plot was wide open and the twist was foreseeable, but is delivered in a solid manner that does not detract from the central action-drama surrounding the central protagonists.
To wind this up – the message is simple; go out and watch Denzel movies, even the ones that only score a 6.5 on IMDB, as his performances are exemplary and watchable. There aren’t many people in Hollywood like Denzel Washington anymore – and I will continue to follow his career and, I am certain, enjoy his movies for sometime to come.