Still on fire: Looking back at Denzel Washington's dazzling action movie career

With the release of The Equalizer 3 on Thursday, we look back at some of the actor's most entertaining action films

Denzel Washington is back as Robert McCall in The Equalizer 3, released in the UAE on Thursday. Sony Pictures Entertainment
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Now 68, Denzel Washington has released The Equalizer 3, the latest in a long line of films that have made him a quintessential action star.

Of course, it isn’t entirely fair to pigeonhole the Oscar winner as a genre-specific actor. Even in his most high-octane films, Washington has delivered layered performances that have made him a favourite in Hollywood. But with his reprisal of the slick and stoic former marine, Robert McCall, in Equalizer 3, we take the opportunity to look back at the trajectory of Washington’s career in action.

Here are seven of Washington’s most gripping action films.

1. Training Day (2001)

A high point in Washington’s oeuvre as not just an action star, but as an actor. Gritty and unapologetic, the film tells the story of up-and-coming LAPD officer Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke), who is assigned to veteran narcotics detective Alonzo Harris (Washington).

The film is a winding dive into the underbelly of the Los Angeles drug circuit, with Washington delivering a charged performance as Harris, a hardened detective with questionable tactics. Directed by Antoine Fuqua, the film earned Washington the Academy Award for best actor. Hawke, meanwhile, was nominated in the best supporting actor category.

2. Man on Fire (2004)

Man on Fire received mixed reviews when it was released, in part because of the explosive and over-the-top second half and the vigilantism depicted in the film. But it is one of the most stirring revenge action films in Hollywood history. Washington stars as John Creasy, a dejected former CIA officer who has taken a job as a bodyguard in Mexico City. When his charge, a nine-year-old named Lupita, is kidnapped, Creasy embarks on a vengeful and bloody quest to bring her back.

The film also stars Christopher Walken, Marc Anthony and Mickey Rourke, as well as Dakota Fanning as Lupita.

In The Equalizer 3, Fanning and Washington are reunited as co-stars in a film for the first time in almost 20 years.

3. Inside Man (2006)

In the Spike Lee-directed Inside Man, Washington is an NYPD hostage negotiator embroiled in a high-stakes situation involving a group of robbers who take control of a Manhattan bank.

The film was the fourth time Washington had worked with Lee, after Mo’ Better Blues (1990), Malcolm X (1992), and He Got Game (1998). The films differ greatly and each appeal in their own right. From a musical comedy, to a biopic and a sports film, together the actor and director forged one of the most wide-ranging collaborations in Hollywood. With Inside Man, Washington and Lee produced the missing piece in their collaborative body of work, the action heist.

Inside Man spins the genre in Lee fashion, touching upon social issues while delivering an exhilarating and action-packed thriller. It features several strong performances alongside Washington, including by Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Christopher Plummer and Willem Dafoe.

4. Unstoppable (2010)

Unstoppable is the fourth collaboration between Washington and director Tony Scott after Crimson Tide (1995), Man on Fire and Deja Vu (2006).

The film revolves around a train that speeds out of control, and with a cargo of toxic chemicals on board, threatens an environmental disaster with cataclysmic consequences. Inspired by true events, the film stars Washington as an engineer who works with a conductor (Chris Pine) to bring the train to a halt, while saving those in its relentless path.

Unstoppable is a popcorn film at its best, effortlessly reeling you to the edge of your seat.

5. Safe House (2012)

The script is anaemic, the plot rambles, and the editing is choppy, but Safe House is still a fun flick.

The film pairs Washington with Ryan Reynolds, and the unlikely duo turn out to have quite a bit of on-screen chemistry. The film is replete with tropey gunfights, chase scenes and brawls, and feels like a throwback to the action films of the 1990s, but that is what makes it fun.

6. The Equalizer (2014)

Washington’s penchant for vigilante action films reached another high point with The Equalizer.

The film revolves around McCall, a former marine and US Defence Intelligence Agency officer who has faked his death with the aim of leading a quiet life. When he crosses paths with a teenager who is trafficked into sex work by the Russian mafia, he steps out of that unassuming life to save her.

The film was the second time Washington and director Fuqua has worked together, after Training Day, and it was the beginning of a new phase of collaboration between the two. The Equalizer also stars Marton Csokas and David Harbour.

7. The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Washington stars as bounty hunter Sam Chisolm in this remake of the 1960 Western-style movie, which itself was adapted from the 1954 Japanese classic Seven Samurai.

The film tells the story of an industrialist tycoon who captures an American frontier town with hired guns, forcing its residents to work in his mine. Desperate, the townsfolk seek the help of Chisolm, who along with a motley group of gunslingers, stands up to the tycoon.

While the film employs a handbook of cliches, the epic shootouts and star-studded cast make it a worthwhile action film. In the grand trajectory of Washington’s filmography, The Magnificent Seven doesn’t stand out much, but when considering his biggest and boldest action movies, The Magnificent Seven is notable.

Updated: September 01, 2023, 6:02 PM