This is our second part of our anthology of Denzel Washington’s film career, just in case you couldn’t get that from the title. If you didn’t get a chance, please check out the first part: Denzel Washington – Anthology: The 1980s. The 1990s were incredibly prolific for the actor, averaging nearly two major films per year. Despite notching two Oscar nominations and one win (for Glory) in the 80s, Denzel continued to mix in some rather lowbrow movies with more prestige projects. He also signed on to some paycheck projects – mass appeal genre pictures that provided him with his first $100 million grossing films. The 90s also saw him continue his fruitful collaboration with directors Spike Lee and Ed Zwick. it is an interesting mix of films: mass appeal to the niche films, thrillers and dramas, and even a romantic comedy.
Heart Condition (1990) – MG
So Denzel starts off the decade with likely his worst film during these years – a box office bomb and universally panned by critics. Just looking at the absurd poster tells you all you need to know. I have to be completely honest, there’s like a 30% chance I saw this movie, but I have no recollection of it. This is one of the only comedies Denzel did in the 90s, and after the critical drubbing I can see why he wanted to avoid doing any more. He can do comedy, but it’s just not his wheelhouse and it doesn’t suit his demeanor. Denzel plays a lawyer named Napoleon Stone (what a name!) who gets killed in a drive-by shooting and his heart gets transplanted into a bigoted white cop, played by Bob Hoskins. Stone then “haunts” Hoskins’ cop to coax/help him find out who killed him. The plot of the film sounds both preposterous and highly insensitive by today’s standards. That’s probably why you can’t find this film to stream on any of the major platforms. I would love to hear if any of our readers have a take on this film.
DJ: This hearkens back to Carbon Copy – enough said…
Mo’ Better Blues (1990) – DJ
The first of the 90s Spike Lee collaborations and Lee’s 4th film. I saw this one recently and overall I am a relatively above average Spike Lee fan. This film didn’t do it for me. I didn’t really understand what the whole point was and it could have been my naiveite about the film. I will say the acting was very solid. Denzel was amazing. He plays main character trumpeter/bandleader Bleek Gilliam. He looks like he can actually play trumpet, same goes for Wesley Snipes in the role of saxophonist Shadow playing the sax. I miss this Wesley Snipes, the guy could act. Cynda Williams as Clarke in her first role and one of Bleek’s two girlfriends was also a standout. Bleek’s only priority is to his music and he can’t commit to either girl. To go along with that he has a band mate that wants to take over the band, an always late piano player and a manger named Giant, played of course by the diminutive Spike Lee, who is a terrible manager and a gambling addict. Not sure if the acting is enough. The plot just seems there. I also must admit I am not a huge Jazz fan and this film has lots of it. I may not have given Jazz a chance yet so it may still be something I end up liking but right now I don’t have an appreciation for it. A friend always told me to listen to some Dave Brubeck or listen to Bitches’ Brew, but haven’t yet.
MG: This is one I did not see. I’ve listened to a little more jazz than you, Miles Davis mostly, but I wouldn’t call myself a big fan. From your description and what I’ve heard of it, I don’t think its for me, but I’d check it out if it was free and I had the time.
Mississippi Masala (1991) – MG
So neither one of us saw this film, and it’s not available to stream anywhere. However I did watch several clips of it posted to YouTube and also checked out some of the reviews. Denzel looks so young in this film – he looks even younger than in prior roles like in Glory. The story is about a Mississippi blue collar worker (Denzel) and a romance with a woman of Indian ancestry. Her parents don’t approve of their relationship, and Denzel soon discovers that even though they share a similar skin color, their different heritage leads to a new form of racism than he hasn’t encountered before. The reviews were mixed on this, and what I saw seemed ok, but nothing great. Looking at his entire catalog, this is one of the few romantic dramas or comedies that he has done.
DJ: I would be interested in this but can’t seem to find it anywhere. Seems like a strange film for him, but may have been a good change-up.
Ricochet (1991) – DJ
I saw this at the theaters when it came out probably because the preview was pretty darn good. I loved action films and this seemed to be another good one. I remember liking it and not thinking much of it as the years passed. I watched it again recently, and I was embarrassed. It’s dreadful, I would rewatch Carbon Copy before this. Even Denzel’s acting which sometimes lifts a bad movie can’t do it here. It’s a stinker when my favorite performance was from a young rapper named Ice-T. I read recently that this film is in the Die Hard universe, which I have no clue how it would fit, but it’s no Die Hard. The premise is young cop Denzel Washington, aka Nick Styles, catches evil mastermind Earl Talbot Blake played by John Lithgow at a carnival, and he goes away for presumably life. Over the years Styles moves up the ranks with his new-found popularity and becomes an assistant DA reporting to DA Priscilla Brimleigh played by Lindsay Wagner (yes the Bionic Woman). Talbot breaks out of prison and then vows to ruin Styles’s life. I don’t get the motivation there. You are free, jump town. Lithgow is so crazy over the top. There is a scene where he takes a power saw to a guys stomach. There are all kinds of plot contrivances and gaps in the script trying to “set-up” styles. Lithgow’s sidekick played by Josh Evans is like an Outsiders reject that even Pony Boy wouldn’t like. Denzel’s former partner is played by Kevin Pollak the comedian, and they make sure in the script that Pollak can whip out his stand-up impersonations, including his William Shatner. It’s abysmal and I feel embarrassed for Denzel in this one. Ice-T was good though and Jesse Ventura as Talbot’s cellmate is pure gold. I am hoping in 1991 I was laughing at this and not actually enjoying it.
MG: I remember being excited to see this, but I don’t remember the film much. I’m pretty sure I did not like this at the time, but who knows? I did enjoy your description of it – it almost makes me want to watch it with a six-pack. There was definitely a “90s villain” type – a semi-smart, but way over-the-top criminal who loved to taunt the cop chasing him and throw a few one-liners in as well (Wesley Snipes in Demolition Man comes to mind, as does Russell Crowe in Virtuosity – see below). The bar for mainstream moviemaking in the early 90s was not that high.
Malcolm X (1992) – DJ
We saw this one way back in 1992 when it came out. I had no clue who Malcolm X was. I had heard of him but did not know what he did, and I didn’t think it was positive. But this movie definitely helped a shielded white boy understand a lot more race relations in this country. Spike Lee’s masterpiece albeit a bit too long is as dramatic and meaningful as Oliver Stone’s JFK was to me. I immediately bought the book The Autobiography of Malcom X which is one of my favorites. In fact I am reading the latest biography The Dead Are Arising by Lee Payne currently. Spike Lee uses his same gimmicks in this film, the famous tracking shots. I think he does spend a little too much time on the early years. Denzel is brilliant and should have won the Oscar. He became Malcolm and he and Lee brought Malcom’s message to a new generation. I think what gets me is Malcolm’s transition from a Blacks-only mentality to a a more inclusive revolution. If I see this film on TV I almost always stop. Denzel has fire in his oration delivering the Plymouth Rock speech. It’s been almost 30 years and the new generation need to see this film. Maybe pair it up with the latest about Black Panther leader Fred Hampton – The Judas and the Black Messiah. People need to know the history. Anyway, the end of the film where we see kids from 1992 still professing hope for the ideas of Malcolm X always gets me.
MG: I agree that before this film came out I had an impression of Malcolm X being almost a domestic terrorist figure. At the time I did not feel good about Lee taking this film away from director Norman Jewison, just because Lee felt it needed a black director. I still struggle with that line of thinking, as I can see both sides of the argument, but Lee did make a great film in the end and it was definitely a cinematic high point, maybe “the” high point, for both Lee and Washington. Washington winning Best Actor for Training Day and not this film is a travesty. Al Pacino winning for Scent of a Woman over Denzel for Malcom X was appalling.
Much Ado About Nothing (1993) – DJ
I know we saw this one together too. This Shakespearean adaptation by director/actor Kenneth Branagh was pretty enjoyable but I couldn’t tell you much about it, it seems like a lifetime ago. It’s a comedy, it had some funny parts. Seeing Denzel play Shakespeare was interesting and different, not as much so as Michael Keaton and Keanu Reeves (WTF?). More enjoyable than Branagh’s 10 hour version of Hamlet. Denzel plays Prince Don Pedro, Keanu is his evil half brother. There is a wedding that almost doesn’t happen, people get betrothed. Poor Do Pedro gets rebuffed by Emma Thompson and is like the only one not married off by play’s end. It’s a fun film, maybe one to revisit.
MG: I was thinking that Denzel didn’t jump on the 1990s indie-film trend that was all the rage, but this film sort-of qualifies. I think we saw it at the Kendall Square Cinema, which was showing all the latest indie pics. I suppose you could also include some of his work with Spike Lee as “independent”. I don’t remember much of this film either, although I did like it at the time.
The Pelican Brief (1993) – MG
The 90s saw a sub-genre emerge of Josh Grisham novel-based legal thriller movies – there were 8 or 9 of them and The Pelican Brief landed right in the middle. I saw a lot of these, and read the books, and they all kind of blend together and have a similar structure. Usually there was a young, idealistic protagonist who stumbles upon some legal conspiracy and is forced to work against the clock with someone else they previously didn’t know to make/solve a big case. The young protagonist here is Darby Shaw (Julia Roberts) who is a law student that gets caught up in a conspiracy around two Supreme Court Justice assassinations. She connects with a seasoned reporter Grey Grantham, played by Washington, who ends up helping her solve/expose the case. There are a ton of recognizable supporting/character actors, playing mostly shady government suits, including John Lithgow and Stanley Tucci. Both Denzel and Julia were on skyrocketing career trajectories in the early 90s, which helped the film gross over $100 million – which I believe is Denzel’s first $100 million film. This was definitely designed as a vehicle for J-Rob, as she dominates the first hour and Denzel is in it for less than 10 minutes, until they meet-up at the half-way point. After that they share the screen/story for the rest of the way, and I thought the two actors worked well together onscreen. Denzel plays a very likable character, but that also means his range is limited. This is a decent 90s time-capsule type of film, but its also one you quickly forget about.
DJ: I saw this fairly recently and I was bored with it. I think I feel that way about most of the “Grisham” films. I did like The Firm and maybe The Rainmaker. I didn’t buy Denzel and Julia in this film and I totally forgot about the plot within a day. I wouldn’t go as far as hate but I would say I have a massive indifference to it.
Philadelphia (1993) – DJ
Unbelievably I saw this film for the first time just a couple years ago. I have no clue why I never saw it, it just passed me by and I never got back to it. It was one of the premiere mainstream films showing a man dying from AIDS and the true story of him fighting his firing because of discrimination. Tom Hanks won an Oscar and Denzel was fantastic. He played a lawyer that really didn’t have enlightening views on the AIDS crisis or the gay lifestyle and by handling Andrew Beckett’s (Tom Hanks) case he grew into someone that was able to change. At the time his character of Joe Miller probably represented a lot of people and both Denzel and Hanks took risks playing these roles. You can probably throw Antonio Banderas in there as well playing Miguel Alvarez, Beckett’s significant other. It was a ground breaking film. Jonathan Demme’s best – yes best, better than Silence of the Lambs. It was great to see big-time actors taking on these roles and showing there was nothing wrong with being gay and to give a push to AIDS research. Ultimately people with AIDS stopped dying at a high rate and can now with proper attention live normal lives. The film even had an Oscar winning song “The Streets of Philadelphia” by Bruce Springsteen.
MG: Yes, definitely way better than Lambs – one of the most over-awarded films ever. It was an inspired bit of casting to have Denzel in the role of someone who starts out with a strong bias against gays/people with AIDS and learns that his bigotry was wrong. I wish Denzel took more roles in his career where the character was more flawed and not so noble.
Crimson Tide (1995) – MG
DJ and I actually saw this together at a classic General Cinema, which, not long after, was razed and replaced by a Wendy’s and a Bugaboo Creek restaurant (which is now itself, out of business, with the building sitting vacant for years). This theater experience was memorable because the AC was broken and I felt just like Denzel with sweat breaking out in the film’s most tense scenes. I recall we both liked this film at the time and it probably was Tony Scott’s best film, which isn’t saying all that much I know. I recently watched part of this and it definitely feels dated – for Scott’s heavy-handed, yet vacuous visual style and the kind of storytelling that thinks it’s ok to take up the first 25 minutes with boring set-up. Once this submarine-thriller gets below the surface (ha-ha), the tension kicks in and Denzel is finally allowed to do more than politely smile. Gene Hackman is at his best when he restrains himself, which he definitely does not here, and his old-school military leader, the type that always knows better than the “bureaucrats”, feels more like a dated caricature. The film’s script isn’t terrible, but it doesn’t give Denzel enough to really flex his acting muscles, so it ends up a competent, but somewhat forgettable performance by him.
DJ: I loved this film. The intensity of both leads were great, love Hackman. Clearly Tony Scott’s best film. I haven’t seen it for awhile so maybe it dates itself. I know Denzel worked with Scott often and some are good and some not at all and we will see more of these in part 3.
Virtuosity (1995) – MG
I’m realizing that we were bigger Denzel Washington fans in the 1990s than I thought, and this is another one we saw together. Ever since we first saw it, Virtuosity has lived in our minds as a legendary bad film – one of the first that came to mind when the topic of bad 90s films would come up. However, I watched this again recently and I was surprised that it wasn’t that bad. Believe me, it’s far from an Oscar winner, but it was fun to watch Russell Crowe ham it up (to the nth degree) as a psycho-killer called SID that migrates from a computer program into the real world. The computer program is a composite of several bad guys, and of course one of the bad dudes is a terrorist that Denzel Washington’s cop (Barnes) killed in revenge for killing Barnes’ family. Barnes went to prison for the murder, when he also accidentally killed some bystanders, and now if he can bring down SID, the cops say he might get a break on his sentence. This is a classic 90s cop vs. crazy bad guy plot, complete with one-liners and the obsession of the bad guy with the cop. Spoiler alert: it all leads to a one-on-one showdown between the two with predictable results. Given the formulaic plot, Denzel isn’t given much to work with, and is actually upstaged by Crowe’s hyperactive antics, but he does enough to earn his paycheck on this one.
DJ: I remember hating this film, really hating it. I re-watched it recently and I actually had fun. It’s better than Ricochet. Both leads look like they are having fun. It’s so over the top and ridiculous. I enjoyed it in all it’s nonsense keeping in context where it fits in both lead’s canons.
Devil in a Blue Dress (1995) – DJ
I am not a big time film noir fan but I do like some of the big ones, The Maltese Falcon for instance. This film harkens back to those days and is considered “neo-noir”. It takes place in the late 40’s and is from a book by Walter Mosley, the first in the Easy Rawlins series. Denzel plays Easy who in need of money is paid to track down a missing women played by Jennifer Beals. It follows the same pattern as most noirs, kidnappings, murders, darkness, ambiguity, etc…Overall though it’s a likeable film. Carl Franklin does a nice job with direction. Denzel gives another solid performance. I wouldn’t say I would seek this film out again but you could find worst. Surprisingly no sequel was made. Don Cheadle has a standout performance as “Mouse”.
MG: This is one of the three or four 1990s Denzel films I have not seen. I’m a fan of film noir and the story you described sounds interesting, so maybe I will check this out if I see it streaming somewhere.
Courage Under Fire (1996) – MG
This is one of my favorite Denzel movies, and I’m man enough to admit that I have cried several times watching this. Washington plays a Lieutenant Colonel in the army, formerly leading a tank division and now transferred to an administrative role. Before we even know the details of what happened to him in Iraq, his demeanor and body language demonstrate an invisible burden of guilt he carries from the war. While he investigates a case to see if a helicopter commander, played by Meg Ryan, should be the first woman to get the Medal Of Honor, his internal struggle with his war experience builds to an emotional revelation that is gut wrenching. Ryan was billed as a co-star, but she never has any scenes with Washington, and her role is really more of a supporting one. Director Ed Zwick, who previously worked with Denzel on Glory, deftly blends these two war narratives. Still, there were times I wanted to see more of Washington’s story and less of Ryan’s, but it all combines for a very well-done war drama.
DJ: I know I saw this and I know I liked it a lot but I really don’t remember it much now. I have to assume they were playing up Meg Ryan in a “dramatic” role playing against type and lost Denzel in the shuffle. I liked Zwick’s work and wish he had done more. It was an emotional film no doubt. I think in some ways this movie is fading back as well.
The Preacher’s Wife (1996) – DJ
I have not seen this and it makes me nervous. I am a huge fan of the original The Bishop’s Wife with Cary Grant and David Niven and that is a great film. If it was the holidays maybe I would give it a watch but I don’t love remakes and when a film is perfect how could it be better? Whitney Houston has never been lauded for her acting abilities and I don’t remember this film getting great reviews. I am sure it is passable. I am sure that Denzel could pull off Grant’s suaveness and confidence.
MG: I avoided this film as well – both for my perception of it being a “religious” film and the inclusion of Whitney Houston. Like you, I would give this a chance next holiday season if it is streaming somewhere.
Fallen (1998) – DJ
Fallen is one of those films that is really not for everyone and one of the few times Denzel ever got involved in a supernatural film. Denzel plays a cop who watches a serial killer that he helped put away die in the electric chair. When he thinks the horror has ended a copy cat picks up and starts to murder around town. I always kinda liked these grounded devil/demon films. This one overall is pretty good. Denzel does a great job playing the detective that is frustrated and obsessed with getting rid of the demon Azazel. Of course at one point Denzel gets framed for the crimes and has to figure out how to get out of it and kill Azazel. The ending is pretty smart and thrilling. Some strong supporting performances from John Goodman, James Gandolfini and Donald Sutherland as other police. Elias Koteas has a bit part as the original serial killer cursing and yelling at Denzel in Aramaic. Koteas always fits this type of character. Embeth Davidtz is the lone female part in the film playing a daughter of a victim who has some knowledge of the demon. Not sure what happened to her, Davidtz was in a lot of things in a short period of time. Certainly not Denzel’s best film but a good one just to be entertained for a couple of hours.
MG: Wow, Denzel had three serial killer movies in the 90s, but that’s what audiences loved at the time. I liked Denzel in this film, but the demon element is pretty hammy, particularly in retrospect. There were a couple of films with this set-up though, Schwartzenegger’s End of Days comes to mind, and I watched them and went along with it at the time. I can’t recall Denzel’s level of acting in this, but I’m guessing he put in enough to be convincing, but not that much more.
He Got Game (1998) – MG
This is probably my least favorite Lee/Washington collaboration, although that’s mostly due to Lee’s lazy directing vs. Washington’s performance, which is pretty solid. Having said that, and despite his face dominating the movie poster, Denzel’s role is more of a supporting one, with real-life basketball player Ray Allen in the lead role of Jesus, a much sought-after prospect by both big colleges and the NBA. Some have praised Allen’s performance, but I found it to be inconsistent and sometimes flat – I think there’s a reason Allen never did any other acting after this (but he was a great ball player). Denzel plays Jesus’ father, who is in prison for accidentally killing his wife (Jesus’ mother), but is released by the governor on the condition he convince Jesus to sign with a school called “Big State”. It’s a bit of a hokey set-up, but Denzel does a great job at showing the shame he carries while trying to patch things up with his son. The father/son interactions are the best parts of the film, but unfortunately Lee breaks those up with too many drawn-out sequences, like some long basketball street game scenes. There is also a side story of Denzel trying to help a prostitute (Milla Jovovich), which has nothing to do with the main story, but plays like a tacked-on redemption arc to show the character can be good to women (?). Denzel’s performance is definitely the best part of an otherwise choppy and inconsistent film.
DJ: I enjoyed this better than “Blues” maybe cause I like basketball better than jazz. Denzel was very solid. I actually disagree and think Ray Allen was decent, surely better than any Shaq related films. Of course I wouldn’t say he should be acting. Maybe Lee was lazy because his love of basketball, who knows. The side story was dumb, I wanted more basketball.
The Siege (1998) – MG
I really liked The Siege when it came out, and when I saw it again sometime in the past 5 years it held up pretty well. It was actually interesting to watch this post- 9/11 and realize how prescient it was in 1998. This film is the third, and final, collaboration between Washington and director Edward Zwick. That is unfortunate, because Zwick was great at drawing out a certain stoic intensity and nobility out of Denzel, and for his part, Denzel substantially elevated Zwick’s material from very good to the realm of Oscar worthy. In The Siege Denzel plays FBI agent Anthony Hubbard who teams up with a CIA agent Annette Benning and comes in conflict with a tunnel-vision general, played by Bruce Willis. After several terrorist bombings in New York City, the President declares martial law and Willis’ general is hell-bent on militarizing the city and rounding up anyone who looks Muslim into internment camps. The story gets pretty dense, with Hubbard’s partner getting impacted by the Muslim round-up and a constant clock ticking to when the next bombing will occur, and the race to try and prevent it. A scene towards the film’s end where Hubbard gives an impassioned speech about the cost of “bending the law” and “shredding the Constitution just a little bit” still resonates today. For me this is one of my favorite Denzel performances, and he demonstrated a solid command of a leading role in a larger-scale story with a lot of moving parts.
DJ: Another really good Ed Zwick film. Denzel gives a great performance and works really well with Benning. Also a pretty good role for Willis. I haven’t seen this in years but it does sound pretty relevant today. I like these type of films and wish we would see them today, they just don’t seem to be made or made well.
The Bone Collector (1999) – MG
This is another genre film that Denzel probably did primarily for the paycheck. I saw it once when it came out and liked it for what it was, but it was very similar to other cop-vs-serial killer movies in the 90s. Denzel plays Lincoln Rhyme, a forensics expert who became a quadriplegic after an accident left him paralyzed from the neck down. A rookie cop, played by early-career Angelina Jolie, stumbles upon a bizarre crime scene and ends up becoming Rhyme’s surrogate as he uses her to track down a serial killer that, naturally, has a tie to a case he worked on in the past. In some ways I miss these types of thrillers, where you could go to the theater and have an entertaining experience and not have to think about it much afterward. These were a staple of the 90s, and I don’t think this one really stood out, versus say David Fincher’s thriller Seven. Denzel obviously spends the whole film stuck in bed, so that limits what he could do as an actor, but he still brought his trademark intensity. This ended up being his second film to cross $100 million in box office gross, and at close to $150 million was one of his most commercially successful films.
DJ: This could be Along Came a Bone Collector or any of those team up crime solving serial killer flicks. This was ok, I liked it enough at the time, it may even be better than some of those others, it’s better than Richochet that is for sure. But for the most part exactly what you said – a paycheck.
The Hurricane (1999) – DJ
Denzel closed out the 90s with another true story, this time of a boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a middleweight contender who was wrongfully accused and convicted of a triple murder in New Jersey. Denzel received another Best Actor Oscar nomination. The film from acclaimed director Norman Jewison, in his penultimate directed film, depicts Carter’s life from before the arrest, his time in prison and his subsequent release. Carter spent 20 years in prison. A family in Canada gets involved in the case to try to help set him free. I really like this film. Denzel pulls off another great performance. The film doesn’t have any other really big names outside of Rod Steiger playing a judge who starred in Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night. Bob Dylan was also a big supporter of Carter and he supplies his 1975 song “Hurricane” to the soundtrack. Critics were mostly positive but there was controversy over the free play of facts. This surprised me as most true story films do the same thing, to make a coherent flowing film and to tell a certain point of view facts often have to be bent. The film did have a great quote from Carter “Hate got me into this place, love got me out”.
MG: I liked this film a lot when it came out, considering it possibly Denzel’s best work. I watched it again recently and overall it holds up well, but I bet the hardcore cynics out there would look back on this now and call it another “white savior” film, due to the white Canadian family that helps get him released. Regardless, Denzel is excellent in this: really working a range of emotions from anger, to defiance, to despair, to hope. He ended the decade far better than he started it.