Denzel Washington is a great actor. A future first-ballot Hall of Famer. If you made a Mount Rushmore of current Hollywood leading men, Denzel would be front and centre.
Still, it’s impossible for any actor to work for as long and as steadily as Washington has and not have at least a few misses on his resume. And unfortunately, Denzel’s latest movie — The Equalizer 2, which hits theatres today — is one of them. The action thriller’s the first-ever sequel for the two-time Oscar-winner, and it’s a completely unnecessary one at that. Which got us thinking: what is the least essential movie of Washington’s otherwise storied career? Which ones are getting skipped in his inevitable Lifetime Achievement Award montage?
In order to determine the answer, I’ll be using a highly scientific formula, a special blend of critical reaction (as determined by the movie’s Rotten Tomatoes score), box office drawing power, awards season buzz, and a little good old-fashioned personal bias. Philadelphia? Malcolm X? Training Day? All essential. Last year’s Roman J. Israel, Esq.? Not so much. You get the idea. So let’s get to the ranking.
16. Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017)
Did the critics like it? 52% on Rotten Tomatoes
Did it make money? $11.9 million
Did Denzel get nominated? Yes. For an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a SAG Award.
A legal drama from Nightcrawlerwriter/director Dan Gilroy, Washington earned strong reviews — and some obligatory, if half-hearted awards consideration — for his role as the eponymous defense attorney. But none of that seemed to matter, because barely anyone saw it. Verdict? Essential-ish. But only once you’ve gotten through the hits first.
15. The Magnificent Seven (2016)
Did the critics like it? 63%
Did it make money? $93.4 million
Did Denzel get nominated? No.
Washington’s Magnificent Seven remake has a lot going for it — for starters, it’s Denzel making a Western with his Training Day director Antoine Fuqua. Then add in Peak-Chris Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, and Vincent D’Onofrio really committing to playing his mountain man character with an incongruously squeaky voice. But it’s only the third-best movie to be made out of this story (out of three), and it’s not even close.
14. The Book of Eli (2010)
Did the critics like it? 47%
Did it make money? $94.8 million
Did Denzel get nominated? Yes, but it was for a Saturn Award.
A stylish action/adventure starring a lone hero navigating a brutal post-apocalyptic wasteland, The Book of Eli is Denzel’s very own Mad Max, and boasts a contingent of loyal fans who love its weird mix of dystopian sci-fi and religious overtones. But it’s also got one of the creakiest, lamest twists I can remember seeing in theatres, and I can’t in good conscience let that slide.
13. John Q. (2002)
Did the critics like it? 23%
Did it make money? $71.7 million
Did Denzel get nominated? He won an Image Award.
Denzel followed up his Training Day Oscar with… a clunky melodrama about a dad taking an ER hostage to get his kid a heart transplant. That’s not exactly the stuff Academy Award nominations are made of, but anyone can shine in a good movie. It takes a special talent to singlehandedly save a bad one.
12. Fallen (1998)
Did the critics like it? 40%
Did it make money? $25.2 million
Did Denzel get nominated? He did not.
This supernatural thriller was a flop for Washington, despite a cast that included John Goodman, Donald Sutherland and a pre-Sopranos James Gandolfini, but it creeped the hell out of me when I was younger, so that automatically boosts it a few spots. It may not be essential, but it’s definitely underrated.
11. 2 Guns (2013)
Did the critics like it? 64%
Did it make money? $75.6 million
Did Denzel get nominated? Not even once.
Everything about 2 Guns — from Washington and Mark Wahlberg’s banter-y bickering to the movie poster — screams “Bad Boys wannabe.” But when it comes to generic action/comedies, you could do worse (and both these guys certainly have).
10. The Equalizer 2 (2018)
Did the critics like it? 47% (as of press time)
Did it make money? N/A
Did Denzel get nominated? N/A
On paper, a follow-up to the 2014 cult hit about an OCD former agency man balancing the scales by dispensing vigilante justice makes perfect sense. In practice, it’s like someone took the John Wickfranchise and cut out all the fun parts, only to replace them with a political thriller plot half-remembered from one of the Bournemovies. Go ahead and watch the first Equalizerif you want to see Denzel doing the closest he’ll get to a superhero movie, but you can safely skip the sequel.
9. The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009)
Did the critics like it? 51%
Did it make money? $65.4 million
Did Denzel get nominated? Twice. For a BET and an Image Award.
Is Tony Scott’s Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 a bad movie? Not especially. Was it essential that someone do a modern remake of the classic ‘70s thriller with Denzel and a goateed John Travolta? Not especially.
8. The Preacher’s Wife (1996)
Did the critics like it? 60%
Did it make money? $48.1 million
Did Denzel get nominated? God no.
Denzel plays an angel sent to Earth to save Whitney Houston’s marriage in his first — and only — Christmas movie. There are gospel numbers involved.
7. Virtuosity (1995)
Did the critics like it? 33%
Did it make money? $24 million
Did Denzel get nominated? Ha.
Virtuosity wasn’t the only virtual reality-themed mid-‘90s sci-fi thriller, but it’s the only one starring a young Russell Crowe as a “virtual serial killer” named SID 6.7 (which stands for “Sadistic, Intelligent, Dangerous,” because, OK, sure). It completely bombed at the time, which checks out, but it’s since become a prime candidate for a second life as a campy midnight movie.
6. Déjà Vu (2006)
Did the critics like it? 55%
Did it make money? $64 million
Did Denzel get nominated? Again, no.
Washington and Tony Scott made five movies together — all slick, frenetic thrillers — so you’d be forgiven if you could’ve sworn you’d seen Déjà Vu before.1 But it’s a time travel/action/romance, riddled with plot holes and released only a few months after Inside Man. You tell me how “essential” that sounds.
5. Mo’ Better Blues (1990)
Did the critics like it? 73%
Did it make money? $16.1 million
Did Denzel get nominated? Nuh-uh.
AKA the Spike Lee/Denzel joint that isn’t He Got Game.
4. Carbon Copy (1981)
Did the critics like it? N/A
Did it make money? $9.5 million
Did Denzel get nominated? Please.
Notable solely for being Denzel’s feature debut, where he played the long-lost illegitimate son of a rich white businessman. I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be an Odd Couple-style comedy, but it, uh, has not exactly aged well.
3. Ricochet (1991)
Did the critics like it? 69%2
Did it make money? $21.7 million
Did Denzel get nominated? Nope.
Starring Washington as a lawyer terrorized by an ex-con he once put away, Ricochet had the misfortune of coming out a few weeks before the similarly-plotted Cape Fear, which went on to get nominated for multiple Academy Awards, while Ricochet went on to get nominated for VHS bargain bins.
2. For Queen & Country (1988)
Did the critics like it? 31%
Did it make money? $191,000
Did Denzel get nominated? Whatever Cockney rhyming slang for no is.
Worth tracking down only to see Denzel attempt a Cockney accent, and fail in spectacular fashion. The British war drama isn’t the worst-reviewed film Washington’s ever made, but it’s his biggest flop — by a wide margin.
1. Heart Condition (1990)
Did the critics like it? 0%
Did it make money? $4.1 million
Did Denzel get nominated? Absolutely not.
How did Denzel follow up his career-making Oscar win for Glory, you might be wondering? I’m going to let the IMDB summary speak for itself here: “A racist cop receives a heart transplant from a black lawyer he hates, who returns as a ghost to ask the cop to help take down the men who murdered him.” Shut it down. We’ve found our winner.
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