Total Recall: Denzel Washington's Best Movies
We count down the best-reviewed work of the Book of Eli star.
Over the course of his more than 30 years in show business, Denzel Washington has done pretty much everything -- he's played cops (good and bad), lawyers, reporters, educators, doctors, mobsters, and more, earning two Academy Awards and more than a billion dollars in box office grosses along the way. With more than 65 films attached to his name in our database, Washington boasts a lifetime Tomatometer of 68 percent (which is rather astounding when you consider that one of those films is 1990's Heart Condition). One thing he's never been given, however, is the Total Recall treatment -- and seeing as how he's about to brighten up our January with the starring role in the Hughes brothers' post-apocalyptic drama The Book of Eli, we decided now would be the perfect time!
There's a school of thought that says if you're going to remake a movie, you'd better make sure the original film wasn't very good -- and from that point of view, remaking 1962's The Manchurian Candidate was a foolhardy idea at best. Ultimately, Jonathan Demme's update on the Cold War political thriller was no one's idea of a classic, but 81 percent on the Tomatometer isn't anything to turn up one's nose at; nor is a cast that includes Meryl Streep, Jon Voight, Liev Schreiber, Jeffrey Wright, Vera Farmiga, and -- of course -- Denzel Washington. The remade Manchurian Candidate served mainly as a showcase for Meryl Streep, stepping into the role Angela Lansbury knocked out of the park in the original; still, there was plenty of room for the rest of the cast to shine, in particular Washington as Ben Marco, the perplexed Desert Storm vet who pieces together a conspiracy involving fellow former soldier, and current Congressman, Raymond Shaw (played by Schreiber). And even if the movie's themes weren't quite as shocking the second time around, they still resonated during the age of the War on Terror -- as Ron Reed of Christianity Today noted in his review, "The movie is playing with ideas, and they're important enough to bear thinking about now. What it's playing on are our fears. And they're real enough, and worth addressing."
More than a few television actors have difficulty making the transition from the boob tube to the big screen, but Denzel Washington picked up his first Oscar nomination (for his supporting turn as slain South African activist Steven Biko, in 1987's Cry Freedom) before finishing his six-year run on St. Elsewhere -- and then he went on to earn even louder critical applause for 1989's The Mighty Quinn. Based on A.H.Z Carr's novel Finding Maubee, the film gave Washington an opportunity to display his seemingly bottomless reserves of cool -- and, in the first of what would be many police roles, his gift for brandishing a service revolver. While not a major box office success, Quinn's twisty mystery plot, sunny island locale, and a solid cast that included Robert Townsend, Mimi Rogers, and M. Emmet Walsh impressed critics -- particularly Roger Ebert, who deemed it one of the year's best films and wrote, "The Mighty Quinn is a spy thriller, a buddy movie, a musical, a comedy and a picture that is wise about human nature. And yet with all of those qualities, it never seems to strain."
There probably really isn't much that can make a person feel better about serving almost 20 years of prison time for a triple homicide you didn't commit, but on the list of things that might come sort of close, having your life turned into a movie starring Denzel Washington must rank near the top. Washington toplined 1999's The Hurricane as Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, the real-life boxer whose long incarceration for three 1966 murders inspired public protests from a number of activists (including Bob Dylan, who wrote the 1975 song "Hurricane" about Rubin). Of course, this being Hollywood, a few liberties were taken with the details of Rubin's life, which understandably angered some of the people depicted in the film (such as boxer Joey Giardello, who sued The Hurricane's producers for libel) as well as a noticeable number of critics (among them the New Yorker's David Denby, who called it "False, evasive, and factually thin -- a liberal fairytale"). No matter how they felt about the film, though, pretty much everyone agreed that Washington was terrific in it -- a position exemplified by the Cincinnati Enquirer's Margaret A. McGurk, who said, "As the center of the drama, Mr. Washington more than fills the screen; he very nearly sets it on fire."
Released in the years before American audiences developed an allergy to movies about wars in the Middle Eastern desert, Courage Under Fire used a Rashomon-style screenplay (written by Patrick Sheane Duncan) to keep viewers guessing about the final days of Army Captain Emma Walden (Meg Ryan), a Medal of Honor candidate whose death is being investigated by Nathaniel Serling (Washington), a lieutenant colonel with a painful history on the battlefield. To this point, Washington had played a lot of cool and/or affable characters, but Courage served as a reminder of the fact that he's every bit as capable of showing depth; though the movie's marketing hook had more to do with Ryan's character than Washington's, the story is about his redemption just as much as her death. The confidence with which he handled Serling's troubled journey wasn't lost on critics; though Washington already had a pair of Oscar nominations to his credit, Courage motivated Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews to note, "Denzel Washington gives as fine a performance as I have seen him give."
6. Crimson Tide
Washington's long and fruitful partnership with director Tony Scott kicked off with this maritime thriller, which put Washington in a submarine with Gene Hackman, tossed in a subplot about messy post-Cold War Russian politics -- as well as some uncredited script doctoring by Quentin Tarantino -- and grossed a healthy $154 million worldwide. For Washington, Crimson Tide was the third film in a box office-busting trilogy that started with The Pelican Brief and Philadelphia; put together, they combined for a whopping $558 million, and cemented his status as one of the most bankable actors in the industry. Of course, that bankability sustained a bit of a dent with his next release, the painful flop Virtuosity, but the less said about that, the better; let us conclude, instead, with the words of the Madison Capital Times' Rob Thomas, who wrote of Tide, "It's great to see a high-tech thriller that thrills because of its actors, not its special effects."