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Denzel Washington: Playing It “Safe”

February 11, 2012

Denzel Washington is one of the best actors in the world; with two Oscars and a Tony under his belt, he’s halfway to an EGOT. But what he really wants to be is a movie star. And nowhere is that clearer than in his latest rote action flick, Safe House, which is battling The Vow for the top box-office spot this weekend.

There’s nothing wrong with Safe House, or with Washington’s performance.  He executive-produced the film, so there must have been something appealing to him about playing the character of Tobin Frost, a rogue ex-CIA agent who turns himself in after nine years on the lam yet still finds himself in constant mortal danger. Washington sleepwalks his way through the car chases and fight scenes that make up most of the movie, then suddenly wakes up for a couple of big emotional scenes, which he knocks out of the park.

Still, nothing about this movie seems especially challenging for Washington. His costar, Ryan Reynolds (as a neophyte CIA captor who becomes his unlikely ally), certainly doesn’t require him to raise his game. Washington is a real actor (his tour de force opposite Viola Davis in Broadway’s Fences was one of the greatest dramatic performances I’ve ever witnesssed), whereas Reynolds is a pleasant personality. And while there are some formidable talents in the supporting cast–Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard, Vera Farmiga (virtually reprising her role from Source Code)–they’re merely levers to advance the machinations of the plot, not flesh-and-blood characters.

The director, a little-known Swede named Daniel Espinosa, does a servicable job with the shaky-cam action sequences, but  you wonder why Washington would choose him instead of one of the formidable filmmakers he’s worked with in the past, like Ridley Scott (American Gangster) or Spike Lee (Malcolm X). Perhaps he couldn’t interest a true auteur in such generic material, but that’s all Washington seems interested in making lately–Unstoppable, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, etc.

It’s possible these are the only kinds of scripts Washington can get produced in today’s blockbuster-centric market. And he’s been burned at the box office in the past when he’s tried to do less conventionally commerical films like Antwone Fisher and Devil in a Blue Dress. In any case, Washington has become–to use a metaphor that his Two Guys, A Girl and a Pizza Place veteran costar Reynolds would understand–the Domino’s of movie stars. His product may be cheesy, but he always delivers.

Did you see Safe House? Do you wish Denzel Washington would take more risks?

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