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Denzel Washington's 7 Best And 7 Worst Movie Roles Ranked

There aren't many actors with as impressive a resume as Denzel Washington. In a career spanning the better part of four decades, Washington has consistently proven himself a master of cinematic and theatrical performances. Commanding the stage and screen with a natural gravitas and charisma to rival any Hollywood legend, he's delivered some of the most complex and layered performances on film, from corrupt police officers to world-renowned historical figures.

Versatile, methodical, and prolific in the number of films he's starred in over the years, Washington has earned each and every one of his many accolades. So far in his career, he's won two Academy Awards, three Golden Globes, two Silver Bears, and a Tony Award, while The New York Times named him the greatest actor of the 21st century — accomplishments most performers can only dream of achieving.

From his starring roles in contemporary adaptations of Shakespeare to his many collaborations with Spike Lee, Antoine Fuqua, and Tony Scott, Washington has appeared in a massive amount of films since his career began in 1975. While almost all of these movies have been terrific, some are less than remarkable. Here are some of Denzel Washington's absolute greatest films, as well a handful of his worst.

Worst: Man on Fire

Denzel Washington's pairings with director Tony Scott largely yielded positive results — as seen with enjoyable hits like "Crimson Tide" and "Unstoppable." However, not all the films they made together were guaranteed successes, with 2004's "Man on Fire," being a prime example of this.

Based on the 1980 novel of the same name, "Man on Fire" follows John W. Creasy (Washington), a depressed, alcoholic former CIA agent/special operations officer turned bodyguard who is charged with protecting the 9-year-old Pita Ramos (Dakota Fanning). After the girl is abducted by a gang of vicious criminals in Mexico City, Creasy relentlessly pursues them, attempting to locate his ward before it's too late.

"Man on Fire" was a notable financial success, grossing $130 million against a $60 million budget (via The Numbers), but many critics dismissed the movie as a forgettable action film. Washington does a decent turn as the aggrieved main protagonist, yet the movie is without a doubt his weakest collaboration with Scott. "Scott's latest exercise in assaultive excess nevertheless lingers for two and a half hours, like a drunken houseguest who won't leave," said The AV Club's Nathan Rabin in his frank appraisal of the film.

Best: The Tragedy of Macbeth

Denzel Washington is no stranger to Shakespeare, having begun his career in stage productions of the Bard's work in the late 1970s. In 2021, he made his triumphant return to Shakespearean tales of revenge with Joel Coen's "The Tragedy of Macbeth." A faithful take on one of Shakespeare's best-known works, the film follows an ambitious Scottish lord (Washington) who murders his way to becoming the king, aided by his scheming wife (Frances McDormand) and a trio of witches (Kathryn Hunter).

There have been so many versions of "Macbeth" over the years that it's rare to see an adaptation that can surprise and entertain audiences quite as well as "The Tragedy of Macbeth." A stylistic departure for Coen and an acting tour-de-force for Washington, McDormand, and Hunter, it received universal acclaim from critics. "The movie hits its stride immediately with a taut, athletic urgency and it contains some superb images," said The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw.

Washington offers a startlingly cold glimpse into the mind of Macbeth, portraying him more as a dutiful soldier faithfully following the orders of others (from his wife in particular) before slowly descending into paranoia and, ultimately, madness. It's a role that earned Washington Academy Award, Golden Globe, Critics' Choice Award, and Screen Actors Guild Award nominations for best actor, among other accolades.

Worst: Safe House

Denzel Washington is arguably more well-known and acclaimed for his dramatic performances than he is for action films. Looking at movies like 2012's "Safe House," it's easy to understand why. In the movie, a rookie CIA agent (Ryan Reynolds) detains a grizzled rogue agent (Washington) in a South African safe house. When a group of mercenaries attempts to kidnap the older agent, the two go on the lam, traveling to another safe house in an attempt to evade capture.

Though the movie was a major box office success — earning $208.1 million against an $85 million budget (via Box Office Mojo) — "Safe House" drew in average critical reviews at best. The performances of Reynolds and Washington were both praised, as was their onscreen chemistry, but the movie's predictable script and lackadaisical action sequences were the subjects of repeated criticism. "For a generic-looking thriller, 'Safe House' gets off to an overachieving start, but by the time it lurches to an overly pat conclusion, it has thoroughly squandered its considerable early promise," said The AV Club's Nathan Rabin.

Despite the film itself being your average, run-of-the-mill thriller, Washington turns in an enjoyable performance as the murky fugitive agent. His true motivations are left ambiguous throughout and it's never clear if he can be trusted, fond as he is of playing mind games. Despite this, he proves himself to be an unorthodox mentor of sorts for Reynolds' up-and-coming agent, dispensing unconventional advice they almost certainly don't teach you in the CIA handbook.

Best: Devil in a Blue Dress

A mystery crime film with a noir spin, "Devil in a Blue Dress" might just be the most underrated film in Denzel Washington's filmography. Set against the backdrop of Hollywood in the late 1940s, recently unemployed World War II veteran "Easy" Rawlins (Washington) is hired to find an affluent white woman (Jennifer Beals) who's vanished from the public light. Drawn into a world of corruption and political intrigue, Rawlins must use all his wiles to survive, constantly unsure of who exactly he can trust.

Based on the best-selling detective series by Walter Mosley, "Devil in a Blue Dress" is an enthralling and at times shockingly brutal take on the whodunnit genre. Reminiscent of the stories of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, the film was praised for its writing and noir aesthetic, as well for its more racially charged exploration of 1940s Hollywood and the noir genre itself.

In the film, Washington delivers a more hard-boiled performance than any other in his career. Channeling an inwardly weary worldview, it's a subtle and humane performance that rises above stereotypes related to the trenchcoat-clad private detective, making him seem more real and three-dimensional. Yet through it all, Washington demonstrates an understated onscreen charisma and world-weariness to rival famed noir actors like Humphrey Bogart or John Garfield.

Worst: The Little Things

"The Little Things" could have been great. It features a strong cast, an intriguing premise, and a style that had the potential to make it a modern classic of the police procedural genre. Sadly, the movie's shabby screenplay failed to deliver a story that properly gripped audiences. Set in the early 1990s, it follows a small-time deputy sheriff (Washington) and a hotshot detective (Rami Malek) who team up to investigate a series of murders in Los Angeles, eventually landing on eccentric loner Albert Sparma (Jared Leto) as their prime suspect.

A crime drama reminiscent of "Seven," "Zodiac," and "Memories of Murder," "The Little Things" is a fairly average neo-noir film that uses many of the genre's most tried and true conventions. As entertaining as it is to watch the contrast between Washington's older, veteran officer and Malek's unconventional detective, the movie is marred by an uneven script and generally unsatisfactory ending.

"It feels like [director John Lee] Hancock is trying to tell a very 'True Detective' story — one about how a case can pull the people investigating it apart from the inside in a way that breaks them forever — but he can't figure out how to shape that into an intriguing mystery simultaneously," said RogerEbert.com's Brian Tallerico. One of the few redeeming qualities of the film is Washington's burnt-out detective, who appears physically and emotionally on the edge of collapse in every scene. Exhausted from his years on the force, it's a strong pulpy performance in an otherwise middling thriller.

Best: Philadelphia

By the early 1990s, Denzel Washington was an established star in the film industry. Coming off of both an Oscar win ("Glory") and an Oscar nomination for best actor ("Malcolm X"), Washington was finally getting the recognition he deserved as a distinguished Hollywood talent, starring in numerous projects with other veteran performers. One of the most high-profile of these was Jonathan Demme's "Philadelphia," a legal drama that saw Washington cast alongside acting heavyweights Tom Hanks and Jason Robards.

Andy Beckett (Hanks) is a promising young lawyer whose career and personal life are thrown into chaos after he's diagnosed with AIDS. Wrongfully terminated by his employers, Andy requests that a cantankerous, unorthodox lawyer (Washington) represent him in court. Universally praised upon its release in 1993, "Philadelphia" was a box office smash hit, grossing $201.3 million against a budget of $26 million (via The Numbers). 

Washington performs an impressive balancing act in the movie, reconciling his character's prejudices with his sympathetic, humane personality. Biased against Andy's sexuality at the start of the film, his homophobia slowly fades as he spends more time with his client, understanding his plight and seeing things from Beckett's perspective. Throughout the film, he grows from a hardworking albeit somewhat selfish lawyer to an attorney that cares deeply about the welfare of his clients — a transformation brilliantly portrayed by Washington.

Worst: The Magnificent Seven

In 2016, Washington starred in frequent collaborator Antoine Fuqua's modern take on the 1960 iconic Western, "The Magnificent Seven." In the film, Washington plays a U.S. marshal tasked with protecting a small town from a group of vicious bandits with the help of six other hired guns (played by the likes of Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio, and Lee Byung-hun).

While possessing a talented roster of noteworthy actors, "The Magnificent Seven" fell flat when it came to measuring up to the original film, which is widely considered one of the finest Westerns ever made. The movie's action sequences, soundtrack, and the performances of the cast involved were well received, but most critics felt the script and story were far too predictable to gauge audience interest. "The action is big and sleek, the characters are charismatic and the film looks beautiful, but this won't be a movie that stays with you long after you leave the theater," said IGN's Terri Schwartz.

Washington does well in his role and is more than capable of holding his own onscreen against the likes of Pratt and Hawke. However, the mediocrity of the film makes it a minor entry in Washington's roster of other, far better films.

Best: Flight

Airline captain Whip Whitaker (Washington) is a first-rate pilot who suffers from severe alcohol and drug addiction. After performing a miraculous crash landing on a passenger flight (following a potentially disastrous mechanical malfunction), Whitaker's personal habits and private life come under intense legal scrutiny, despite him being hailed as a hero by most.

One of director Robert Zemeckis' most celebrated works in recent memory, "Flight" appeared on numerous critics' year-end lists for 2012, with continued praise geared toward the movie's screenplay and Washington's astounding performance. "'Flight' segues into a brave and tortured performance by Denzel Washington — one of his very best. Not often does a movie character make such a harrowing personal journey that keeps us in deep sympathy all of the way," said famed film critic Roger Ebert. The success of the film led to Washington earning an Academy Award nomination for best actor and the film receiving an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay.

As Whitaker, Washington adeptly portrays the unglamorous side of alcohol and drug addiction, and the negative effect it has on one's personal life and the trajectory of their professional career. Unlike other Hollywood portrayals of high-functioning drug users, Whitaker's addictive nature is not romanticized at all — Washington brings all the worst qualities associated with addiction and portrays them in a startlingly accurate light. It's a sobering, realistic performance, and will no doubt go down as one of the highlights of his lengthy career.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Worst: John Q

When his insurance company denies coverage of his son's heart transplant, a desperate father (Denzel Washington) storms an emergency room and takes the hospital staff hostage until his son gets the surgery he urgently needs. It's a simple premise for a simple film, with "John Q" containing little to any innovation whatsoever, operating firmly as your standard hostage situation story.

It's clear the filmmakers behind "John Q" are trying to raise important issues about healthcare and insurance for less financially well-off individuals, but the movie comes off as far too preachy to take seriously. Though Washington is believable as the despondent father who finds himself out of options when it comes to ensuring his son's health and safety, the movie received almost unanimously negative reviews from critics.

Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman perhaps summed up the issues with "John Q" perfectly, saying, "The movie could have used a brain transplant. It doesn't explore injustice — it just exploits it."

Best: Glory

An early prominent role for Denzel Washington — and potentially the one most responsible for his ascension to stardom status — came with 1989's "Glory," a historical drama built around the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment — one of the first regiments in the Union Army made up of Black volunteers. The film chronicles the legacy the 54th had on the bearing of the Civil War, including their gallant assault on Fort Wagner that resulted in heavy losses but led to a significant increase in the number of African Americans who enlisted in the Union, turning the tide of the war in their favor.

"Glory" won significant praise from critics at the time of its release, leading to five Academy Award nominations, three of which the film ended up winning. Additionally, the movie was nominated at the BAFTAs and the Golden Globe Awards and was later featured on the AFI's 100 Years... 100 Cheers list. "'Glory' is a strong and valuable film no matter whose eyes it is seen through," commended Roger Ebert

Washington plays Trip, a runaway enslaved person and rebellious volunteer who joins the 54th. Full of emotion and internal pain yet unsure of how to express it, Trip lashes out at everyone around him, regularly antagonizing his fellow comrades and officers. It's only by the end of the movie that we see his growth as a character, willing to fight and die both for his friends and for the cause of liberty and freedom for all men.

Worst: Virtuosity

Years before they partnered together in 2007's "American Gangster," Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe starred opposite each other in the achingly bad 1995 sci-fi film, "Virtuosity." In a futuristic version of Los Angeles, a police detective (Washington) tracks down a psychopathic android (Crowe) that has been programmed to be an amalgamation of history's most notorious serial killers.

It's a harebrained idea for a film with a premise that makes almost no sense. The nightmarish world created by director Brett Leonard and the performances of the cast are decent enough, but the movie's predictability and hackneyed concepts earned it almost entirely negative reviews. As The New York Times' Janet Maslin put it, "['Virtuosity'] is a virtual-reality thriller so arcane and gimmick-driven that it seems custom-made for viewers whose pulses quicken when they see software."

Seeing Crowe and Washington share the screen should have been a cinematic showdown for the ages. However, fans would have to wait another 12 years before they would both appear in a film that fully lived up to audiences' expectations.

Best: Training Day

Perhaps Washington's most recognizable role, "Training Day" shows the full range of his natural abilities as an actor, convincingly shifting from unconventional veteran detective to corrupt police officer over the course of a single movie. Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) is a young, idealistic rookie detective assigned to learn the ropes by decorated narcotics officer, Alonzo Harris (Washington). Over the course of a single day, Hoyt witnesses Harris' unethical practices firsthand, forcing him to make a tough decision: report Harris or ignore his own principles surrounding law enforcement.

A first-rate crime film from regular Washington collaborator, Antoine Fuqua, "Training Day" is a fast-paced thrill ride and character study that leaves you on the edge of your seat throughout. A notable financial success — grossing $104.8 million worldwide against a $45 million budget (via Box Office Mojo) — it continues to rank as one of Washington's most celebrated roles, earning him an Academy Award and a Golden Globe nomination for best actor.

"So extreme is his mad dog behavior, indeed, that it shades over into humor: Washington seems to enjoy a performance that's over the top and down the other side," said Roger Ebert. Washington portrays his role so well that the audience (like Hawke's protagonist) is never entirely sure what his motivations are until the last act of the film when his true colors are finally revealed.

Worst: Heart Condition

After his critically acclaimed role in 1989's "Glory," Denzel Washington appeared in the lackluster buddy comedy film "Heart Condition," with the late great Bob Hoskins. In the film, a bigoted white police officer (Hoskins) undergoes a heart transplant after suffering a major heart attack. When he wakes up, he's surprised to find his new heart previously belonged to a recently deceased Black lawyer (Washington), who visits the officer as a ghost to persuade him to investigate his murder.

It's a silly setup for a film, and unfortunately, the movie does little to set itself apart from any other buddy cop film that came out around the same time. Instead, it relies too heavily on its mediocre, downright unfunny screenplay, completely failing to capitalize on the considerable talent and chemistry of its two main co-stars.

Roger Ebert probably summed "Heart Condition" up best in his review, saying, "The movie is all over the map, trying whatever seems to work at the moment." Poorly received in 1990, it frequently occupies the lowest spot on ranked lists of Washington's films, with many seeing it as a forgettable footnote in an otherwise unforgettable career.

Best: Malcolm X

If early movies like "Glory" established Denzel Washington as a noteworthy actor, "Malcolm X" cemented his status as a great one. A 1992 collaboration with Spike Lee, the film traces the incredible life story of civil rights activist Malcolm X, from his impoverished childhood in Michigan to his days as an influential member of the Nation of Islam in the '50s and '60s. Throughout it all, Washington portrays Malcolm's evolving worldview and his ever-changing stances on race, depicting his multifaceted careers as a petty criminal, a convict, a religious leader, and an advocate for Black Americans' rights.

Released to glowing reviews, "Malcolm X" is often cited as the crowning achievement of the actor's work with Lee. Universally praised by almost all critics who reviewed the film, the movie earned Washington a New York Film Critics Circle Award for best actor, and Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for best actor.

One of the greatest biopics ever released, Washington's portrayal of Malcolm X is as fully formed and nuanced as they come. Choosing to ground Malcolm in a more layered performance, Washington focuses on bringing out Malcolm's more humane qualities, playing him more as a man than the mythical, larger-than-life icon he would become. Firm, confident, and charismatic in front of a crowd, Washington's Malcolm is constantly refining his opinions and letting his past experiences dictate his future.

As to be expected, playing someone as sophisticated and complex as Malcolm X was bound to be a difficult challenge, but Washington more than manages to deliver, handing in the best and most important performance of his career to date.