There are only a few bona fide ass-kickers working in Hollywood and Denzel Washington is quite possibly atop that list. He’s played every badass role you’ve ever seen in a film: hardened criminal, cop, homicide detective, soldier, athlete – you name it.
Truth is, the man is intimidating. If he ever got mad at me for any reason I would acquiesce to his every demand and probably start crying. I’m sure some Hollywood paparazzo who crossed the line with Denzel one day is telling a shrink about it every Tuesday at 6 pm.
His starring role in post-apocalyptic action thriller The Book of Eli, which opens tomorrow, appears to be – if nothing else – a celebration of all the ass Denzel Washington has ever kicked and is capable of ever kicking. In honor of that, I’ve tried my best to assemble the 10 most badass Denzel Washington performances. I’m far from seeing all his movies, but I stuck in a few he probably was quite a badass in. As for The Book of Eli, we’ll just have to see where that lands on the list starting tomorrow.
10. Crimson Tide (1995)
No, this is not the story of Alabama’s 1992 national championship team. It’s a submarine thriller that marked the beginning of a very important relationship for thrillers of today: Washington and director Tony Scott. The two didn’t hook up again for nearly ten years, but they have made three movies together with a fourth coming out later this year. In Crimson Tide, Washington plays second-in-command on a war sub led by Gene Hackman that was deployed to keep an eye on the Russians. The sub gets an order to fire missiles followed by an unintelligible follow-up order. Hackman wants to deploy them, but Washington is against it and prepared for all-out mutiny should it be made without his consent. Washington as the moral rebel, that’s classic badass Denzel.
9. The Siege (1998)
Another well-known Washington collaborator but not in the last decade is Edward Zwick, who directed Washington to the Oscar that jumpstarted his career in the film Glory (more on that later). The Siege was their third film together and one that was a few years ahead of its time given it centered on terrorism in New York City. Washington gives the FBI hotshot thing a whirl almost ten years before he did it in Inside Man. In the film, he’s trying to stop terrorists while in the meantime Bruce Willis is leading martial law in NYC. Haven’t seen it, but Denzel appears to definitely be in control now 10 years into his career.
8. Cry Freedom (1987)
Washington might’ve had his most unique role right off the bat. In 1987, he played South African activist Steve Biko in Cry Freedom from Oscar-winning Gandhi director Richard Attenborough. He won a nomination for his part as the man who was murdered standing up against and dying for injustice in the apartheid era. It wouldn’t be the last time that Washington played this kind of a part either, but no more South African accents, sadly. It would become Denzel’s first of four nominations for an Academy Award.
7. Remember the Titans (2000)
The tough love sports side of Denzel does his thing again in this motivational sports movie that changed the game, so to speak, for motivational sports movies. Hollywood poured on the race-related and inspirational true sports stories after this one, which tired the genre, but “Titans” remains the standout. Washington played Herman Boone, who thanks to desegregation rules, has his program merged with a team of white players. He challenges them to work together and the results are fun and touching. It’s a different kind of badass, but who wouldn’t get his ass in gear if Denzel were on it? Seriously. Other Denzel sports films include Spike Lee joint He Got Game and The Hurricane (which got him an Oscar nod) but neither are as badass. Washington plays an older, not ass-kicking Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.
6. Malcolm X (1992)
Spike Lee gave Denzel the biggest role of his career in his film based on the biography of controversial yet influential civil rights figure Malcolm X. Perhaps it would’ve been more impressive to see a more seasoned Denzel take on the role, but he did excellent in this movie, earning himself his third Oscar nomination in just six years. His version of X’s famous speeches are just as powerful and his willingness to endure pain for his cause is worthy of deeming badass.
5. John Q (2002)
In this modern take on Dog Day Afternoon, Washington stars as the title character who holds a hospital hostage because it’s the only way he can procure his son’s life-saving heart transplant. In a classic “how far would you go for your child?” scenario, Washington gets to be bad but with a moral spin on it that makes him the good guy. This is really where we get into Denzel’s kicking ass and taking names films.
4. Glory (1989)
Denzel’s first Oscar came in this previously mentioned Civil War action drama under direction of Edward Zwick. He played Pvt. Trip, a somewhat defiant soldier with a devil’s advocate perspective that makes the discussion on civil rights a bit more interesting. He’s a heck of a soldier too. Denzel’s other military roles, namely Courage Under Fire or his directorial effort, Antwone Fisher, or aforementioned Crimson Tide simply don’t compare. This was a great film and Denzel had a very good part in it. He doesn’t make the film, but he adds to its greatness by being a ringleader and a badass.
Now this film is Denzel badassery at its finest. A former assassin hired to protect a family, Washington goes on a revenge spree when the girl he’s protecting is kidnapped. The things he does to these people are some of the finest scenes of badass showmanship in cinema. Whether or not Dakota Fanning was worth it all is up for debate, but this film truly established Denzel as a force not to be messed with.
2. American Gangster (2007)
Now here’s a film that makes Man on Fire sound like a boring documentary on the Human Torch. Denzel Washington actually takes a gun out and shoots a man in the head on a busy street in broad daylight. Why? Because he’s Denzel, or rather, he’s Denzel playing ‘70s drug kingpin Frank Lucas. “Gangster” was one of the seriously underrated films of the great year for dramas that was 2007. In it, Washington (under direction of Tony’s brother Ridley Scott) shows his truly bad badass side. Had this been an Oscar role for Washington, it would unquestionably No. 1 on my list. This film will make you terrified of Denzel.
1. Training Day (2001)
This is a film I really need to watch again. I think there’s no denying that this is Washington’s finest performance and considering it’s a badass role even in the slightest, that makes it far and away No. 1. Denzel plays Alonzo Harris, an unorthodox and morally questionable LAPD detective who takes Ethan Hawke for a ride he won’t soon forget. It’s a radical ethics dilemma about what justice truly is, making it an antihero film of sorts. Denzel is clearly at his finest when he plays a character with a unique world view, that’s unconventional. He can play the hell out of a detective or a soldier or