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Obviously, this is a more complicated question than what happened to Clive Owen. Washington is one of our generation's Major Leading Men, and he's got two Oscars to boot. But I don't think there's any doubt that, as David Elliott notes, something has happened: "The Great Debaters wasn’t bad, but it has been way too long since a first-rate Washington movie."

How long, exactly? Well, Training Day, for which he won his second Oscar, came out in 2001. Since then, we've had John Q, Antwone Fisher, Out of Time, Man on Fire, The Manchurian Candidate, Inside Man, Deja Vu, American Gangster, The Great Debaters, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, The Book of Eli, Unstoppable, and now, Safe House. A decade of hm.

One thing that's definitely happened: he's started working a whole lot more with director Tony Scott: Man on Fire (2004), Deja Vu (2006), The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009) and Unstoppable (2010) are all Scott projects. A revenge pic, a time-travel cop pic, a remake, and a disaster pic.

Prior to these, Scott and Washington had worked together on Crimson Tide (1995), a tense little submarine thriller set in the days when nuclear war with Russia still felt like something to worry about. In it, Scott got to do a little variation on his race-baiting scene in True Romance (1993). Compare:

and

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kXjcf47y-zk

Fun times! But also, maybe, worrying. In the True Romance scene, Hopper knows he's a dead man. What he wants to to get Walken to kill him quick, so that he won't have time to break under torture. So he goes off on his racial rant, and there's a real point to it: get Walken so angry that he forgets himself and goes ballistic before getting his information.

But the Crimson Tide scene? Sure, it feels good to watch Washington stick it to that old jerk Hackman. Ha, ha, take that, racist! But what's the point, really? Hackman could conceivably reply, "They may be born black, but by the time they're worth anything, they've turned white." Score one for racism!

Of course, that's not what Hackman says. What he says is this: "Some of the things they do, uh, defy belief. Their training program is simplicity itself. You just stick a cattle prod up their ass and you can get a horse to deal cards. [Chuckles] Simple matter of voltage."

What on earth does this have to do with anything? Crimson Tide is a film about judgment vs. authority, about how interpretation matters even in the order-bound world of the military - not good vs. evil, but good vs. greater good. That's what makes it compelling. Hackman is not General Jack D. Ripper, eager to launch war to preserve the purity of his essence:

No, Hackman is a tough old war horse who doesn't want to see American blown to smithereens. So what exactly is the point of making him a racist? And even if there is a point, what kind of racism is this? "These white horses I like can be tortured into doing what I want." Well, howdy doody. How is this an endorsement of the horse? Sounds more like an endorsement of the torture. When it comes to cattle prods up the ass, the color matters not at all.

It's funny - I never thought I'd be defending a Christian Slater movie over one starring Gene Hackman. But there it is. The real problem, however, is that here you have a director mining a good bit from the film he just did and sticking it into his next film, not because it makes sense, but (apparently) because it feels cool.

I could be wrong. But given what came later, I'm not sure I am.

More to come. What say you?

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Comments

Scott Marks Feb. 23, 2012 @ 4:20 p.m.

I'm enjoying this series too many, Matt.

What happened to Denzel Washington? Simple. Tony Scott.

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Matthew Lickona Feb. 23, 2012 @ 4:35 p.m.

Thank you, Scott! No, not you, Tony. Scott MARKS.

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Colonna Feb. 23, 2012 @ 9:06 p.m.

Denzel has to shoulder some of the blame here: he directed two of those movies - "Antwone Fisher" and "The Great Debaters".

Like all great actors, Washington does certain films not for prestige but to pick up a paycheck. And he's hitched his wagon onto the Tony Scott bandwagon unfortunately.

Jump, Denzel, jump!

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