Like many 1980s kids, my introduction to Denzel Washington was in Glory, Edward Zwick’s formidable Civil War drama that now feels downright masterful compared to today’s Oscar bait. But it mostly remains indelible because of Washington’s magnetic Academy Award-winning performance as Pvt. Trip, a rebellious force of nature that puts everyone on notice the very moment he walks on-screen. From that point on he was known simply as “Denzel” in our household, a name that brought the biggest of smiles to my Mom’s face.
Over the course of a storied career that includes two Oscar wins and countless other accolades, Washington has worked with filmmakers as diverse as Spike Lee, Jonathan Demme, and Zwick. His performances cross the spectrum of acting styles and genres, but they are all connected by a sense of simmering tension with the world at large. How each of these characters decides to deal with those conflicts is paramount to their singularity.
Between 1995 and 2010, Washington made five films with the late great Tony Scott (his most with any single director), an English action auteur whose own Hollywood career was minted after directing Top Gun (1986) for mega-producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer. Considering Washington’s pedigree as a “serious” actor, his artistic collaboration with Scott might have seemed ill-fitting at first. But their achievements are plentiful and lasting, not to mention deeply human. They often get glossed over due to Scott’s notorious cinematic style, which remains an attractive entry point for critics grappling with his breakneck classicism.
It’s always easier to analyze aesthetics than motifs, because the latter takes much more time to consider and reflect upon. I spent the last week doing just that. All of Washington and Scott’s films, which include Crimson Tide (1995), Man on Fire (2004), Déjà Vu (2006), The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009), and Unstoppable (2010), are deeply concerned with the relationship between responsibility and sacrifice, and how we choose to act when the world is falling apart.
In each Washington plays a professional who’s very good at his job, and spends the entirety continuously proving it during tense, spiraling scenarios where innocent lives are at stake. They must endure corporate/government superiors and gun-toting villains who don’t share the same values or motivation. Often, these men have personal demons or hide past traumas by immersing themselves in their work.
For Scott, Washington embodied the endurance and solemn bravery of characters who act valiantly in the moment knowing full well it could be their last, thus proving wrong the cynics and fascists who prey on the vulnerable. It wasn’t his devastating good looks, or imposing frame, or debonair walk that made Washington such a complex leading man for Scott. It was his selflessness, unwavering calm, and ability to turn all of the pain, agony, and anxiety into something resembling hope. Scott’s visuals may have always been frenetic, but they were anchored by Washington’s consistent resolve, stubbornness and shark-like determinism.
Crimson Tide sees Washington’s youth, new-era intelligence and moral compass as a means to critique the old guard militarism of Gene Hackman’s nuclear submarine captain. When juxtaposed together they represent the past and future colliding in a potentially devastating situation thousands of feet below the surface where the fate of the world rests on whether or not to launch a preemptive strike against Russian extremists threatening to destroy major U.S. cities.
The film’s central conflicts relate to institutionalized loyalty and the chain of command, the validity of which is called into question throughout nearly every high stakes sequence. Information (or a lack thereof) becomes the ultimate testing ground for these intrenched ideals. Scott and Washington’s tug of war between action and restraint, stress and calm, begins with Crimson Tide, and it’s a breathtaking example of action filmmaking that eschews backstory and plot in order to remain electrically connected to the moment at hand.
It would be another nine years before they teamed up again, and during that time Washington evolved as an actor, morphing from a noble young professional to a weathered soldier at the end of his rope. In Man on Fire, he plays John Creasy, a career mercenary and drunk looking for a fresh start in Mexico City. The high rate of local kidnappings makes bodyguards with any skillsets an attractive commodity, and so he quickly lands a job protecting Peeta (an amazing Dakota Fanning), the young daughter of a wealthy businessman and his American wife.
During the film’s masterful first hour in which killer and innocent child gradually become friends, Creasy starts to see life as something other than dealing death. You can see Washington’s performance become more tender and relaxed. But like so many Scott films, quiet only foreshadows madness and violence. After Peeta is abducted, Creasy goes on a killing spree trying to find her captors. This section is far less interesting, but speaks to Scott and Washington’s keen interest in dynamic men who can flip a switch and change mindsets depending on the situation.
There’s a quote in Déjà Vu that speaks to the internal heartache of every single Washington/Scott collaboration: “No matter how hard you hold onto something, you lose it.” A cagey, slightly creepy, and ultimately brilliant deconstruction of cinematic voyeurism, the film follows ATF agent Doug Carlin (Washington) who’s investigating the domestic terrorist bombing of a New Orleans ferry carrying hundreds of U.S. servicemen. Upon learning that the government has a secret technology that allows them to look back exactly 4 days into the past, he volunteers to help surveil a local woman (Paula Patton) who will eventually be murdered by the bomber.
Scott’s film never veers into full-blown Vertigo territory, but Carlin’s infatuation with his subject (whose past life is beamed to video screens by way of synchronous satellites) is readily apparent throughout. Still, his interest transcends sexual attraction or lust, and it has to do with the film’s understanding of temporal and experiential familiarity. There’s something about this woman that reminds Carlin of the sacrifices he’s already made (or will make). For a filmmaker like Scott who specializes in blistering montages and scratchy, needle drop imagery, it calls into question the very nature of immediacy. Life could very well be repeating and splintering indefinitely, providing Carlin with infinite chances to succeed, and the director himself the same opportunity to create new timelines.
Scott’s The Taking of Pelham 123, a remake of the 1974 crime film of the same name, presents Washington with a pedestrian role mostly tethered to the turmoil of his surroundings. Under investigation for taking a bribe, NYC transit officer Walter Garber is stuck at the operator’s booth when goateed madman Ryder (John Travolta acting as if he just discovered the word “motherfucker”) and his cronies hijack a subway car. The ensuing standoff occurs mostly over intercoms and inside control rooms (a Scott staple) where Walter tries to stave off the inevitable using tactics of diversion and acquiescence. Still, there’s a moment where he moves from passive bystander to active participant (however unbelievably so) and the film gains a whole other level of momentum.
If The Taking of Pelham 123 is the least successful of Scott and Washington’s projects together, Unstoppable should be considered their best. It would also be their last (Scott committed suicide in 2012). One of those rare American films without an ounce of narrative fat, it follows a pair of railroad employees (Chris Pine’s rookie conductor Will Colson and Washington’s veteran operator Frank Barnes) as they try to chase down and stop a runaway locomotive carrying highly combustible cargo.
Within this seemingly linear and propulsive setup, Scott creates room for Frank to embrace the topsy turvy nature of his situation by achieving a malleable state of sustained focus founded on three decades of experience and knowledge. Frank and Will’s relentless desire to put themselves in harms way for others has nothing to do with self-preservation or perception. It’s simply about doing the right thing. In turn, Scott positions them as the opposite of cowardly, corrupt, and incompetent corporate brass who continuously make the volatile situation worse.
Ultimately, Unstoppable beautifully epitomizes the central motif of Scott’s entire career: failure is not an option. Right before they decide to drive their train car backwards at 75 mph, Frank tells Will, “You quit too easy.” The films of Tony Scott and Denzel Washington never quit, and they show us that true heroism lies in embracing the responsibility of any situation, no matter how messy or painful the consequences. It’s a thematic North Star that gives their films an aesthetic freedom that transcends Hollywood’s frustrating lack of creativity and reductive salesmanship. Together, they truly believed it was never too late.
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