Two Decades of Pair-ups: Chronicling the Denzel Washington formula

Last night I watched Denzel Washington’s latest action thriller, Safe House.

As Denzel’s character Tobin Frost matched wits with Ryan Reynolds’ young CIA agent Matt Weston, it struck me that there was something familiar about the on-screen dynamic between the two actors.

I went back in time and had a look at Denzel Washington movies over the past 20 years and realized that in 13 out of 27 movies that Denzel has acted in during this time, the dramatic tension has originated from Denzel being paired off with or paired off against another strong actor/ character. As a result, Denzel Washington has shared screen time with some of the biggest names in Hollywood. So, I thought it would be fun to chronicle how the ‘Denzel formula’ has evolved over the years with these 13 movies.

#1 and #2 – The trend began with a pair of Denzel movies both released in December 1993, Philadelphia and The Pelican Brief in which he was paired off with arguably the biggest male and female box office draws of the day, Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, respectively. In both cases, Denzel played the supporting role or foil to the lead actor.

It must have become pretty clear to film makers that unlike many Hollywood actors who feel threatened when they have to share screen time with other strong actors, Denzel Washington actually seems to thrive on such scripts.

#3 – In 1995, he acted in the submarine thriller Crimson Tide and this time he was locked in a battle of wills against his own sub captain, played by one of the most powerful character actors of all time, Gene Hackman.

#4 – A couple of months later, Denzel returned to the screen in the scifi action film Virtuosity, where he had to match wits against an android carrying the synthesized personality of over 150 serial killers…the android was played by an up and coming actor named Russell Crowe. The movie was a flop and Denzel took a break from action-thrillers and started diversifying his roles, with films such as Courage Under Fire, The Preacher’s Wife and Spike Lee’s He Got Game.

#5 – In 1999, Denzel returned to the formula with The Bone Collector, this time paired off with Angelina Jolie who had just come to public attention a few months earlier with her award winning role in the TV movie Gia.

#6 – Two years later, in 2001, Denzel found himself playing his first anti-hero role in Training Day, one which won him his second Oscar. This time, Ethan Hawke was the good guy, but Denzel’s stature was so great that many people in the audience found themselves rooting for Denzel’s corrupt cop Detective Alonzo Harris.

He followed this up with another anti-hero role in the drama John Q, although this didn’t feature the ‘Denzel formula’ pair-off.


#7 – But, by 2004, Denzel was back to the formula in the highly publicized remake of The Manchurian Candidate, this time having to battle it out with none other than Meryl Streep, who played the twisted senator Eleanor Shaw.

#8 – In 2006, Spike Lee released what is perhaps his most commercial movie to date, Inside Man featuring a fascinating cat-and-mouse game between Denzel’s character Detective Keith Frazier and Clive Owen’s bank robber character Dalton Russell. This was Denzel’s third collaboration with Spike Lee.

#9 – Denzel returned to anti-hero territory in 2007 playing gangster Frank Lucas in Ridley Scott’s epic crime drama American Gangster. It was a reversal of 1995’s Virtuosity because this time it was Denzel being hunted down by Russell Crowe’s Detective Richie Roberts.

#10 and 11 – Denzel’s next two pair-up films were his fourth and fifth collaborations respectively with director Tony Scott. He was back to his good guy role in 2009 with a remake of The Taking of Pelham 123, this time having to face down hostage taker John Travolta. In 2010, for a change there were no bad guys, only a runaway train, which Denzel had to stop in partnership with Chris Pine in Unstoppable.

#12 – In early 2010, Denzel appeared in the post-apocalyptic action-drama The Book of Eli, in a highly entertaining face-off against Gary Oldman’s character Carnegie.

#13 – And this brings me full circle to the starting point of this post, which is his latest pair-up in Safe House, returning to an anti-hero role for the third time and repeating the Training Day formula by being paired off against Ryan Reynolds’ rookie-type character.

Denzel will skip the formula in his next movie Flight, which sees a long-awaited return to live-action film making by director Robert Zemeckis, but the plot for his subsequent movie 2 Guns, coming out in 2013, certainly looks like another pair-up, this time with Mark Wahlberg. Clearly, in the last few years, as Denzel has taken on the role of senior citizen, his own screen actor counterparts appear to be getting younger. What is significant is that Denzel Washington has been equally successful in films like Courage Under Fire, The Hurricane, Remember the Titans and Man on Fire where he has carried the film as a stand-alone lead. Surely, this qualifies him as among the most versatile leading men/ character actors of the past two decades.

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