This might sound bold, but consider it: No one has sought out cookie-cutter roles in the last decade with quite the same gusto as Denzel Washington. The two-time Academy Award winner for Best Actor has appeared in no fewer than eight bona fide Liam Neeson-style movies (that is, action thrillers typically driven by motives of revenge or preventing a calamity). Liam Neeson appearing movies like this is one thing — it’s provided the Oscar nominee with a career renaissance and given the world the gift of Taken.
Washington is a different case, though. When he made his first pure action movie of this millennium, Out of Time, in 2003, he was just a year removed from his second Oscar win (for Training Day) and was, by all accounts, one of the most coveted actors in the world. His next straight-up action role was 2004’s excellent Man on Fire, and in the following few years, Washington took just one such job (Deja Vu in 2006). After 2007, marked by the respectable (if somewhat disappointing) American Gangster and The Great Debaters, Washington devoted himself fully to action/thriller films designed to do little other than grab some money at the box office, make him look like a badass, and be forgotten the instant they left theaters. Think they were all nuanced and special in their own way? Consider this: Washington made two movies (The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and Unstoppable) about saving trains in an 18-month span.
It’s not as though Washington isn’t still an exceptional actor. He earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his role in last year’s Flight — a role that could have won him another Academy Award in a year that wasn’t so stacked with remarkable performances. It just seems like immersing himself in a challenging role isn’t something that holds much interest for Washington these days, which is a shame — there are few better at doing so.
Today, Washington’s latest action movie hits theaters. There’s always the chance that The Equalizer will rival Man on Fire and redeem a decade’s worth of mostly unambitious career choices, but if recent history is any indication, you shouldn’t hold your breath — just relax and enjoy the action.