Last month, Denzel Washington starred in a remake of The Magnificent Seven. The movie was directed by Antoine Fuqua, who, as any trailer for any Antoine Fuqua-directed movie of the past 15 years will tell you, also directed Training Day, the film for which Washington won an Academy Award for Best Actor. Following their 2014 hit redo of the TV series The Equalizer, The Magnificent Seven marks the third collaboration between Washington and Fuqua and, as such, qualifies them for the Together Again treatment.
Yet as much as I would like to write about a black leading man repeatedly teaming with a black director—a seemingly simple arrangement that is nonetheless relatively rare in Hollywood—it wouldn’t quite feel right to tackle Washington and Fuqua. It would feel, in a sense, unfaithful. Thirteen years passed between Training Day and The Equalizer, but Washington’s career in the meantime made it feel less like a long-awaited reunion and more like a last-minute substitution. In other words: Wouldn’t it have made more sense if Tony Scott had been able to direct The Equalizer? This probably isn’t fair to Fuqua, who is, after all, the much-referred-to director of Training Day. But he’s also the director of the terrible Olympus Has Fallen, among other negligible non-Denzel projects. Scott, meanwhile, made almost exclusively Denzel Washington movies between 2001 and his death in 2012, and during that time passed Spike Lee to become Washington’s most frequent collaborator.
One major difference between Scott and other directors who have worked repeatedly with Washington, including Lee, Fuqua, and Edward Zwick, is that Washington never won or was nominated for an Oscar for any Tony Scott movies. Their work together is unabashed, unembarrassed (if occasionally self-serious) pulp, with no real pretense of actorly grandeur. Washington has made movies like this for as long as he’s been a big star—Virtuosity, Fallen, The Bone Collector—but his Tony Scott pictures gave his movie-star career an identifiable rhythm both in terms of reliable box-office success (all of them were at least mid-level performers) and their consistent (if not always equal) cinematic pleasures.
Washington was also there as Scott’s style evolved from post-MTV flash to post-digital jitters. They first worked together on Crimson Tide, the fourth and final film Scott directed for producers and architects of ’80s-style excess Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer. (He would go on to direct two more for Bruckheimer’s solo company following Simpson’s death.) Their producers’ prints, as well as early Tony Scott signifiers, are all over this 1995 summer blockbuster, with its many early scenes in pouring, light-streaked rain at night; its high-gloss lighting that sometimes makes the interior of a submarine look impossibly gleaming; its frequent deployment of big-budget military bombast; and editing that probably seemed quick at the time but now looks like a beacon of coherence. It’s a perfect example of how yesterday’s flash can turn into today’s de facto classicism.
Scott’s use of Washington is now appealingly old-fashioned, too. For all of the movie’s high-stakes jockeying over the fate of the world—Washington plays second in command on a submarine led by Gene Hackman navigating the waters of an unstable possible coup in Russia—Crimson Tide relies on Washington’s youthful persona as a thoughtful man of innate decency. With much of the biggest submarine action occurring without the actors in frame, the real fireworks come from Hackman and Washington’s verbal conflicts—from watching two top-level actors bark at each other. By this point in his career, Washington was well established as a gifted actor and popular movie star, but Crimson Tide positions him as capable of holding his own while engaging in overlapping shouting with Hackman. It’s a more measured binding of movie-star and military might than, say, what Scott does with Tom Cruise in Top Gun.
Though Crimson Tide was a big summer hit, Scott and Washington didn’t team back up for almost a decade. When Washington reentered Tony Scott world in 2004 for the revenge thriller Man On Fire, it still had plenty of surface flash and sheen, but was further augmented by strobing images, double or triple exposures, nontraditionally formatted subtitles that shift in size and screen placement, and a frequent greenish tint. In other words, Tony Scott had entered his Green Period.
Washington, meanwhile, had entered his man-of-action period. Though he’s never really done an all-out actioner in pure Die Hard or James Bond mode (Magnificent Seven comes closer than most, and even that one only really becomes a full-on action movie at its climax), he’s gravitated more toward gunslinging as he’s aged into a movie-star institution. (If he isn’t usually lumped in with the Liam Neeson class of geriatric action stars, it’s only because, at 61, Washington rarely looks like an old man on screen.) This fits with Scott’s interests; he’s certainly put together some action sequences, but he seems more fond of combining mayhem with the most pronounced obsession with control rooms this side of Paul Greengrass. That’s one reason Crimson Tide still makes such a strong Tony Scott picture despite its lack of green filters or stuttering images: Its submarine setting makes the whole movie take place in, essentially, one big control room.
Man On Fire substitutes gunfire and explosions for control rooms, and it still doesn’t really play as an action movie. Action standbys are instead used for a marathon of violent revenge when the little girl (Dakota Fanning) guarded by Washington’s badass John Creasy is kidnapped and presumed dead. After opening moments that indulge his new ultra-stylized approach, Man On Fire settles down for its long section where Washington and Fanning get to know each other, only to re-unleash Scott’s full green-strobing id when Creasy goes on his rampage. Entire sequences are built not to generate suspense but to swirl, smear, and stutter around Washington, whose gravity manages to hold the center in a way that never happens with Domino, Scott’s Denzel-free Green Period picture. The full-Scott sequences include an insane bit where Creasy interrogates people at a rave, then blows the place up on his way out the door, to the raucous cheers of the crowd, which has been evacuated in a suspiciously orderly fashion.
Man On Fire tries to ground itself with its more restrained first half, which delays the action in order to focus on scenes between Washington and Fanning. But it feels like protesting too much—insisting, implicitly, that Fanning’s precocious adorableness more than justifies a scene where Creasy sticks a bomb up a bad guy’s rectum and blows him to pieces. It’s the kind of sleaze that might work fine in a 90-minute shameless revenge thriller, which is what Man On Fire basically gussies up with Scott’s stylizations; Washington’s star power; and a punishing, inexplicable 140-minute running time.
Scott doesn’t usually dabble in sci-fi, and with the exception of Virtuosity, Washington usually stays closer to ground level, too. But the other Scott-Washington Green Period film, Déjà Vu, is indeed a time-travel story, wherein Washington’s ATF agent Doug Carlin is exposed to advanced time-travel tech as part of his quest to solve a recent New Orleans bombing. Naturally, Scott conceives time travel as stuttering, zoom-heavy, surveillance-state tech, where wonks in a control room can observe the events of roughly four hours earlier, taking place within the range of their cameras. Time travel as instant replay is perfect for Scott’s Green Period style, though this movie actually represents a step back from the heavy stylization of Man On Fire. The time-travel surveillance footage that can offer “any angle, any view” serves as an outlet for Scott’s most elaborate tics. The movie takes a surprisingly long time getting Washington back in time; Scott is too big a fan of ridiculous procedural detail (and accompanying helicopter shots) to make a whole movie as inventive as the time-delayed car chase that makes up the movie’s most memorable set piece.
Washington gives classic movie-star performances on both Man On Fire and Déjà Vu, in the sense that he puts a recognizable human face on a lot of nonsense. He’s the reason Creasy seems noble and maybe even cool, rather than a grimacing, vengeful psycho, allowing Scott to bypass, however briefly, the nasty politics of revenge, at least for a couple of hours. In Déjà Vu, Doug is eventually motivated by his romantic interest in a bombing victim played by Paula Patton, but he plays it laconic for much of the film. Another actor giving a relatively low-key, relaxed performance in a life-and-death action picture might not get away with it. Yet Washington isn’t phoning it in—he just has the natural charisma to hold the screen even when he’s spending large chunks of time riding a trolley, watching surveillance footage, and trying to decode a message left via fridge magnets. A star of his caliber is perfect for a movie where he has to fall in love with, essentially, the image of a woman. With most of his likability coming straight from Denzel, Doug is something of a thin image himself, and Scott uses his surveillance-screen obsession to compose some images that have more tenderness than the nuts-and-bolts silliness of the screenplay.
In his later-period movies, Scott rejuggles some of the same elements to a heavy degree, even for someone who made two different movies about a cocky Tom Cruise displaying mastery of a particular type of dangerous vehicle. In movie after movie, cars flip and bash together, jaded professionals bark orders in control rooms, text flashes across the screen, and helicopters and the camera circle each other anxiously, all depicted in a grainy sheen. Scott’s last two films with Washington do his Cruise movies one better: They don’t even bother switching up the mode of conveyance that much, placing Washington on an underground train in a remake of The Taking Of Pelham 123 and an above-ground train in Unstoppable.
Scott’s remake of Pelham shows the limits of his techniques; they can’t fully compensate for the details the movie lacks, like a strong sense of New York in the late ’00s; Spike Lee beat him to the punch, with Washington in tow, for 2006’s much better Inside Man. Even Washington playing a decent but morally compromised man was better served by Carl Franklin’s Florida semi-noir Out Of Time. Scott improved on his own formula immensely the following year with Unstoppable, in which Washington and Chris Pine play train workers running from, and then toward, an unmanned runaway train carrying several cars of dangerous chemicals (“like a missile the size of the Chrysler Building,” goes Rosario Dawson’s trailer line).
This was Scott’s final film, leaving his Denzel On Trains trilogy tragically incomplete. Besides working well as a fleet, 98-minute Tony Scott thriller with the requisite green scenery and numerous helicopter shots (which is to say, shots both of and by helicopters), it also codifies Washington as a movie star with imitable mannerisms and tics that can be parodied. (Granted, Saturday Night Live’s recently departed Jay Pharoah had done his Denzel Washington impression in a sketch before the show parodied the Unstoppable trailer, and surely he wasn’t the first person to “do” Washington.) Earlier examples of Washington leaning into his mannerisms happen in both Man On Fire and Déjà Vu, when he interrogates people with a hectoring, almost motormouthed repetition, restating their words back to them as kind of a rhythmic poke that matches Scott’s doubled and replayed images.
But in Unstoppable, the setup is so spare—Washington mostly just shares the onscreen space with Pine, and when the camera isn’t circling their train car, it’s cutting them apart into one-shots—that Washington’s insinuating qualities have more room to make themselves known. They’re easier to isolate and spoof. That’s not to say he descends into self-parody so much as gives a perfectly Pulp Denzel performance. He’s not the showiest he’s ever been, nor does Scott go full Green Period (despite the ample green scenery). Instead, they work in concert, creating an actor-director rhythm that makes their filmmaking as much a part of the momentum as the rumbles and rattles of trains.
Few, if any, of these movies would go on a list of the all-time best work by Denzel Washington—not in a career that includes his performances in Malcolm X, Philadelphia, He Got Game, Inside Man, Devil In A Blue Dress, Courage Under Fire, Flight, and, sure, Training Day. The cumulative value of Washington’s collaborations with Scott are perhaps best expressed by contrasting his one film with Tony’s older brother Ridley, 2007’s American Gangster. Washington is good in Gangster—fearsome, charismatic—and the movie around him is pretty solid, too. But there’s something stolid and uninspiring about the way Ridley Scott employs his star. American Gangster is sort of like Training Day but classier; Tony Scott’s Denzel pictures are like Training Day without the Oscar attention or a semblance of real-world relevance. Yet this has clearly proven a comfortable fit for the actor. With just a few exceptions, to watch Denzel Washington in movies made over the past 12 years or so is to watch either movies directed by Tony Scott, or movies that should have been directed by Tony Scott.
That sense of comfort has been occasionally frustrating, in that we’re watching one of his generation’s best actors only occasionally perform in non-popcorn pictures. But now that Tony Scott is gone, it becomes clear how much more of a crapshoot a Denzel Washington popcorn picture has become. It could be an amusing if forgettable lark like 2 Guns, or it could start off well before descending into a stream of gory vengeance that barely has any helicopter shots or blasts of green at all. Not all of the Scott-Washington pictures are stellar, but they have a consistency that helped define a solid 10 years or so of Washington’s career. It’s no small thing that a black man has become one of the most reliable box-office performers around, and no small pleasure that a flashy post-MTV director became such a reliable purveyor of popcorn for grown-ups.
Next time: A master stylist puts his wife through the wringer.