Denzel. Say no more. The name means consistency in Hollywood: always a good role, always a great performance, and (almost) always in the running for top awards. With today's release of the runaway train thriller 'Unstoppable,' the versatile Denzel Washington once again brings his formidable dramatic skills to the screen.
Sure, Will Smith wins at the box office, but Washington, with two Oscars and five Oscar nominations, is arguably the pre-eminent African-American actor of his time. All of that made it tough to whittle down his resume to a top 10. (Though with full disclosure, it was easy to lop off 'Carbon Copy,' on the grounds that sometimes a young actor will do anything just to get a break.) Otherwise, with his subtle delivery, total immersion into a wide range of characters, and a smoldering intensity that always has the potential to go volcanic, Washington is that rare actor who either makes you hold your breath or leave you just plain breathless. Here are his top 10 heart-stopping performances.
10. 'Much Ado About Nothing' (1993)
In Kenneth Branagh's sterling adaptation of Shakespeare's romantic farce, Washington plays Don Pedro, who, after returning from war, has set his sights on having fun and finding love. When Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard) and Hero (Kate Beckinsale) are quickly betrothed, they enlist Don Pedro to help trick Benedick (Branagh) and Beatrice (Emma Thompson) into admitting their deep feelings for one another as well. Trouble is, Don John (Keanu Reeves) is determined to upset the plan. This is a rare lighthearted turn for Washington, and he positively shines alongside the who's who cast. But you know what they say: It's hard to go wrong when you have good material.
9. 'The Hurricane' (1999)
Was there ever a Bob Dylan song that needed a film version more than 'Hurricane'? Based on a true story (as was the song), the film had Washington undergo a year of boxing training to play Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, a contender for the middleweight boxing crown, who is falsely convicted of murder and imprisoned. In one of his by-now trademark roles, Washington plays the guy who is up against it; Carter never fought harder in the ring than he did to get his conviction reversed, and his final speech in the courtroom is essential Denzel watching. Fun fact: Hurricane has a photo of Malcolm X in his cell -- which is actually Washington himself in 'Malcolm X.'
8. 'Inside Man' (2006)
Reteaming with his 'Malcolm X' director Spike Lee, Washington plays Detective Keith Frazier, who has been called in to handle and co-ordinate the negotiations in a bank robbery-turned-hostage situation. Tough enough gig, but Frazier is also facing corruption charges, and the bank president has called in his own negotiator (Jodie Foster) to make sure the bank's possibly shady interests are protected. This is the quintessential Washington role: a fairly normal guy whose life just may burst at the seams from any number of simultaneous pressures. Whatever strength of character he can summon is the only thing holding the whole mess together.
7. 'Man on Fire' (2004)
In Tony Scott's heart-pounding thriller, Washington plays a burned-out ex-CIA agent named Creasy, who, against his better judgment, takes a job protecting a Mexican businessman's 9-year-old daughter (Dakota Fanning). When she is abducted by a local gang, the thoroughly crooked cops steal the ransom money from the kidnappers, and lay the blame at Creasy's feet. Bad move: Creasy's got counter-terrorism training, and he proceeds to crack down on the dirty cops, at one point getting all Jack Bauer on them with some grisly torture sequences. Despite the whiplash-inducing turns in the plot and the energized action sequences, it's Washington's intensity that carries the flick.
6. 'Devil in a Blue Dress' (1995)
It's L.A., it's 1948, and WWII vet Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins (Washington) is looking for work. And boy does he find it: A well-to-do white man needs a private eye to track down a white woman who's been hanging out at the local jazz clubs. The complication is that she's the fiancee of the leading candidate in the L.A. mayoral race. In a Chandleresque tale, Washington plays it cool as he's submerged into a world of crooked cops, political weasels, and enough hoodlums to stock a prison. As Rawlins himself says, "A man once told me that you step out of your door in the morning, and you are already in trouble. The only question is are you on top of that trouble or not?" You know the answer -- after all, this is Denzel!
5. 'Philadelphia' (1993)
Tom Hanks got the Oscar for playing AIDS-afflicted attorney Andrew Beckett in Jonathan Demme's tour de force, but it was Washington who gave the story added resonance as homophobic ambulance chaser Joe Miller, who takes on Beckett's case despite his prejudices. It's a classic Washington turn, as a character who, by a twist of fate, is dragged into doing the right thing. The courtroom scene where he bursts into a litany of gay-bashing slurs to make his point is pure Denzel, unleashing the rage that's been held in check for most of the film. He can represent us any time.
4. 'Remember the Titans' (2000)
In a classic man-under-stress role, Washington plays coach Herman Boone, who is hired to coach football at a black Northern Virginia high school, only to have it integrated with a white school by federal mandate. When Boone is chosen over the white coach, Bill Yoast (king of tension Will Patton), it sets in motion a tense chain of events in which both teams -- and both communities -- learn to accept one another. Of course, when a brick is thrown through Boone's window, he knows it's going to be an uphill climb on the way to a perfect season. The inevitable feel-good ending, however cliched, is one that's well-earned.
3. 'Training Day' (2001)
As a narcotics officer who has been thoroughly corrupted by the grime in which he works, Washington won an Oscar for this downright scary, can't-look-away performance. As Detective Alonzo Harris, Washington is showing rookie cop Ethan Hawke the ropes on his first day, and gives the kid an education in street smarts, mayhem and thuggery that would make Frank Serpico lay down and cry. For once Washington is given the chance to play a totally malignant character, and in this case he comes up aces. But by now, that's the norm for Washington.
2. 'Glory' (1989)
Fresh off his six-season run as Dr. Philip Chandler on 'St. Elsewhere,' Washington immediately established himself on the big screen in this moving Civil War drama about the army's first all-black regiment. In contrast to Morgan Freeman's amenable Sgt. Major Rawlings, Washington's Pvt. Tripp is a proud, insolent, walking bundle of rage. The most visceral moment for Washington comes as he is being whipped in front of the company, and despite the torture, he refuses to crack. You could make a case for there being a small part of Pvt. Tripp in every one of Washington's subsequent dramatic roles.
1. 'Malcolm X' (1992)
Besides his scary resemblance to the iconic title character, Washington gives an Oscar-nominated performance that shows the civil rights leader's transformation from callow youth in Harlem (dig that zoot suit!) to his social and religious awakening, and then on to his serious adulthood as a leader and his subsequent break with the Nation of Islam's leadership. In what might have been no more than a drawn-out history lesson in lesser hands, director Spike Lee and Washington make every scene sizzle with dramatic possibilities. No Oscars? They was robbed!