From tenacious detectives unraveling complex mysteries to inspirational leaders fighting for justice, these movies showcase the power and range of Denzel Washington’s acting abilities. The plot in this one may be slightly silly – it’s about a paraplegic NYPD forensics expert taking on Angelina Jolie’s killer – but the film is still compelling thanks to Washington’s utter conviction.
1. Remember the Titans
Over the course of a career spanning decades, Denzel Washington has proven to be one of the most talented actors of his generation. He’s starred as cops (good and bad), lawyers, teachers, doctors, and even mobsters, earning himself numerous Oscar nominations along the way.
He takes on the role of a corrupt PR executive in this Sidney Lumet film. The movie was criticized for its depiction of bigotry, but it’s hard to argue with the actor’s performance. He’s calm and slick as the man trying to destroy democracy.
This action thriller from Tony Scott is a high point of the Denzel-Kills-Everybody genre. The actor plays a broken bodyguard who is hired to protect the daughter of a Mexican businessman. He gives the hero a nobility that belies his raw thirst for revenge. It’s a thrilling and underrated role.
2. The Pursuit of Happiness
This tense thriller is another reminder of Washington’s super-chill cockiness in these kinds of roles. He plays a father at the end of his rope who gets screwed over by the health insurance system and takes matters into his own hands. The movie strays into histrionics at times, but Washington makes up for it with charisma.
This post-apocalyptic thriller got some serious clout after 9/11, when its politics were newly relevant. But the clunky narrative, ham-fisted earnestness, and unintentional insanity make it an otherwise forgettable entry.
Denzel stars as real-life mafia kingpin Frank Lucas in this 2007 film. He delivers a tour de force performance, with his flogging scene among the most intense you’ll see in a movie. He earned an Oscar nomination for his role. This was also the lookmovie film that really put him on the map.
3. Inside Man
One of Denzel Washington’s most impressive movies, this thriller pits the actor’s suave hostage negotiator against Clive Owen’s unflappable bank robber in a game of cat-and-mouse. The flixtor film is loaded with twists and turns that keep audiences guessing until the very end, and Washington’s chemistry with Owen is electric.
This post-apocalyptic thriller is a little silly, but it showcases Washington’s ability to turn any role into a powerful statement on the human condition. Before this, he was mostly playing the kind of noble but dull heroes you’d expect from an action star. Here he plays a guy willing to risk everything for his family and the good of humanity. He also has a killer smile and an ultra-chill cockiness that’s hard to resist. Antoine Fuqua’s direction is solid. This is a must-see for fans of the genre.
4. Crimson Tide
Washington has starred as cops (good and bad), lawyers, educators, doctors and gangsters, but in this thriller about a train engineer who tries to stop a runaway freight train, he proves he can also handle the classic ‘rookie paired with vet’ mano-a-mano character-driven thriller. His earnest, eager-to-please persona masks the cunning and danger beneath in this underrated film.
Crimson Tide is an obvious submarine-set reworking of the 1964 nuclear Armageddon drama Fail-Safe, but director Tony Scott and star Gene Hackman elevate this overly familiar story with their tense and well-realized clash of loyalty and pride. This is an early example of Washington investing his characters with genuine nobility. He’s a hero who knows he’s broken but is willing to fight for the sake of justice. It’s a career-defining performance. …
Washington not only starred in this adaptation of August Wilson’s play, but he also stepped behind the camera to direct. Here, he plays Troy Maxson, a working-class Pittsburgh patriarch who tries to raise his family in 1950s America while confronting the events of his past. He manages to keep this movie from slipping into white-savior territory and delivers one of his most convincing speeches.
This Zwick drama isn’t perfect — its politics feel clunky and overly earnest, and Bruce Willis’ performance is uneven — but it is an effective thriller with a powerful conclusion that demonstrates Washington’s range as an actor.