Judging from Safe House you may think that Denzel Washington as a bad guy is a new scheme in reinventing himself within the Hollywood system, just like Liam Neeson is now an action hero or Robert DeNiro’s switch from method actor to lame but profitable comedian. You would be wrong though. Of course Denzel is best as a character actor, and the good-guy everyman persona is what he was initially known for. As an action hero he has carried this good egg schtick to good use in films such as Man on Fire and The Hunt For the Red October. But after the success of Training Day and American Gangster, he is back playing a very naughty boy indeed. One of his first screen roles was as a bad guy playing a street mugger in the Michael Winner film Death Wish. Later on he found recognition first as Steve Biko in Cry Freedom, then as the ex-slave soldier in Glory. The question is though, which is better, good Denzel or bad Denzel?
Glory versus Death Wish
In Glory he got a best supporting actor Oscar for playing the freed slave turned soldier, as Chris Hicks wrote in The Desert News that there “are two of our finest actors — Morgan Freeman…and Denzel Washington.” In Death Wish however, he is not even credited for his role and playing a street mugger , and as a film made in 1976 it is not really setting an example for young African American males without a father figure, is it? NEXT.
In the Bone collector he plays a paraplegic forensic detective alongside Angelina Jolie in a blatant Silence of the Lambs/ Rear Window rip off. Whilst in Training Day he plays a corrupt cop that has you guessing to the last minute whether it is all a sick joke or whether it’s for real. He is extremely bad-ass in Training Day but pathetic in The Bone collector. He deservedly won the Oscar playing bad Denzel. But for playing good Denzel, all he got was a 28% average approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
In Crimson Tide he plays a lieutenant commander of a submarine who has little combat experience going at loggerheads with his racist superior Gene Hackman. He reluctantly initiates a mutiny in order to prevent a full scale war between the US and the Soviet Union resulting in him becoming a hero. In American Gangster he plays renowned Harlem gangster Frank Lucas going at loggerheads with man on a mission detective Russell Crowe. He smuggles heroin into the United States on American service planes returning from the Vietnam War. So one is a hero who serves his country and the other becomes public enemy number one mainly through unpatriotic acts. Bad Denzel wins because going against Russell Crowe is braver than going against Gene Hackman.
Winner is awarded to Bad Denzel, who wins two out of three, therefore being bad pays. This though is a relatively new thing amongst actors. There was a time when bad guy roles were reserved for people like Jack Palance and Peter Lorre; people of a certain look, but not anymore. Humphrey Bogart used to always play the bad guy until he ended up in Casablanca, and a similar career path fell to Lee Marvin.
But there was an actor who broke the mould in switching from good to bad quite shockingly, back in 1968. In Once Upon a time in The West a family is ruthlessly gunned down; a young red haired boy being the only survivor. As the camera pans round to reveal the perpetrators we notice the familiar face of Henry Fonda! For those that don’t know this is the all American hero and liberal who had played Abraham Lincoln, starred in Grapes of Wrath and 12 Angry Men. He was the white bread cowboy in westerns such as The Return Of Frank James and My Darling Clementine. So this casting was as shocking as Will Smith playing a paedophile.
In the late 80’s to mid 90’s Alan Rickman made being bad cool with his turn as terrorist Hans Gruber, who had just as many good lines as Bruce Willis but with a better wardrobe (Savile Row London apparently ). In Face/Off both John Travolta and Nicholas Cage took it in turns to play the villain and both had more fun doing so, than playing the hero. There have been many other contemporary actors who’ve put in impressive and memorable turns as the bad guy; Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Kevin Spacey, Gary Oldman, Edward Norton, Heath Ledger and many more. What you have to realise is that though crime does not pay, it does though make for an interesting time.
Safehouse is still in cinemas now