Denzel Washington’s 26 best action movies, ranked

It’s easy to think of Denzel Washington as the best actor of his generation, and in conversation with the greatest actors who have ever lived. He already has two Oscars, and has deserved many more. And with the recent release of The Equalizer 3 on Netflix, it’s the perfect time to look back on his body of work and legitimately pose the question: Is he also the greatest action star of his generation?

If Denzel is on screen in a movie made this century, he’s likely got at least one gun on him. Perhaps you’d conclude that, like Liam Neeson, that means Denzel has been on autopilot. But from the beginning, Denzel has had coinciding populist taste, multiplex butter-flavored syrup infused in his cinematic DNA. Amid historical biopics, Civil War epics, and Spike Lee’s formative romantic meditations, there have always been gleeful crowd-pleasers in Denzel’s body of work: noirs, heists, erotic thrillers, and serial killers.

You may ask, is The Manchurian Candidate really an action flick? And the answer is that once, yes it was. Not that long ago, movies could be more than one thing. A prestige drama could have a great tension-packed car chase. A vigilante movie could be about socialized medicine. A noir could also be a time-traveling sci-fi. By cataloging his hits over decades, through Denzel’s resume, we can chart a devolution in what kinds of genre/spectacle films are being made in Hollywood.

If this is the end of that kind of film, it is fitting to celebrate it by honoring Denzel’s great action flicks, and his best moments in them. He remains one of the best who ever did it. Let’s kick some ass.


Honorable mentions that aren’t quite action movies: American Gangster, Cry Freedom, The Tragedy of Macbeth

26. The Taking of Pelham 123

Denzel Washington in a yellow shirt wearing glasses in The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009) Image: Columbia Pictures/MGM

Director: Tony Scott
Where to watch: Starz, AMC Plus, or for digital rental/purchase

Every one of these movies is a good idea on paper, but this is the most disappointing, because it had the potential to be really special. It’s Denzel and Tony Scott with James Gandolfini, and maybe the last good Tony Manero performance, taking on one of the greatest detail-rich, lived-in New York movies ever made. The original Pelham 123 is a film that really embodies that cliche about the city as a character, and it utilizes it like few movies ever had. It’s about a city of pressed-together schnooks that speak and think like neurotic piece-of-work Jews like me, arguing with each other through the duration of a crisis they all seem more annoyed by than concerned about. This film is entirely drained of that energy, focusing on Scott’s continuing experiments with digital photography instead of the liveliness of the city. Denzel gets to play hostage negotiator versus a scene-chewing John Travolta, and even though Travolta is supposed to be the dominant force in the conversation, Denzel bodies him in most of their exchanges by thinking through his lines.

Best Denzel moment: Confessing to Travolta that he took a bribe to save a hostage’s life, leading to a masterful controlled breakdown over the phone.

25. Safe House

Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) sits in the front seat of a van with Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) in the background. Image: Universal Pictures

Director: Daniel Espinosa
Where to watch: Netflix, or for digital rental/purchase

An actually admirable attempt that’s better than what you may remember, Safe House features an old-school Tom Clancy plot about a house cat itching for a taste of the field who finally gets his monkey-paw wish granted. Unfortunately, the movie has either no feel or no time for character development. It’s reaching for the intimate kinetic grit of Paul Greengrass’ Bourne movies via Sam Peckinpah, and of course it doesn’t get there, but I have to respect a movie that pays this much attention to its spycraft. The fun of the film is watching Denzel’s endlessly resourceful old agent think his way out of a series of seemingly impossible dead ends by leaning on his experience and reflexive improvisation. The Achilles heel is that we’re forced to care about a perfunctory Ryan Reynolds love story C-plot when what we want is more Reynolds and Denzel face-offs. For whatever you may feel about Ryan Reynolds’ “gifts,” this humorless film wastes them. Safe House is better than the next three films in many ways, but they have the courage to be weird and take some swings.

Best Denzel moment: The hint of a smile after Denzel comes up from a first session of being waterboarded.

24. The Bone Collector

Angelina Jolie sits on a hospital bed that Denzel Washington is lying in, in The Bone Collector. Image: Universal/Everett Collection

Director: Phillip Noyce
Where to watch: Digital rental/purchase

Solely based on the title and poster, this feels like it should’ve been Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman. But it’s Denzel and young Angelina Jolie, and it is so much worse and stranger than the Morgan/Judd movies. Denzel is quadriplegic and waiting for a seizure that will put him in a vegetative state, and he is desperate to be euthanized. Instead, he becomes the cuddly cop version of a bedridden Hannibal Lecter, with Jolie as his Clarice. The movie anticipates CSI, as the genius and his protege study the crime scenes left by the killer, who has a research-loving crime fiction writer’s interest in historical New York City trivia and lore and communicates directly with forensic investigators via obscure clues. It also presents an alternate universe where most of the NYPD seems to give a fuck about doing their jobs.

Best Denzel moment: When Denzel, who doesn’t have the ability to move his arms or legs, destroys a serial killer’s hand and rips off his ear using only his mouth.

23. Virtuosity

Denzel Washington, wearing a tight black t-shirt, holds a gun next to a train car in Virtuosity. Image: Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

Director: Brett Leonard
Where to watch: Paramount Plus, free with a library card on Kanopy, free with ads on Pluto

A riff on Frankenstein and the Stallone/Snipes dystopian face-off classic Demolition Man, this is a pretty silly and absurd sci-fi trifle about society, technology, and humanity in the form of a goofball summer thriller. They used to make these inadvertently hilarious techno-thrillers in the ’90s both by and for people with no understanding of how computers work. Virtuosity wins the award for worst CGI on this list, and maybe ever in the history of film? Russell Crowe, as a VR serial killer composite, is made of some cybernetic material that manifests on screen as hair gel tendrils, so he can grow his finger back when it’s chopped off, bullet holes fill back in immediately, etc. You want to give them a pass for the technology not being quite there to execute the vision, but they’re attempting to rip off Terminator 2, a film that was released four years earlier. It’s a more interesting iteration of Denzel’s standard, upstanding, dour straight cop because his character is an ex-cop, ex-con with a dead family and an edge to him, released to track down and kill the film’s true saving grace: young Russell Crowe having more fun than anyone besides Denzel gets to have on this entire list. In fact, here’s a list within a list:

Best Denzel moment: I’d conservatively estimate Denzel shoots cybernetic serial killer composite Russell Crowe 300 times.

22. Ricochet

A young Denzel Washington takes aim with his revolver while wearing a police uniform in Ricochet. Photo: Warner Bros./Everett Collection

Director: Russell Mulcahy
Where to watch: Cinemax

You really have to see this movie to believe it, particularly if your only relationship to John Lithgow is 3rd Rock from the Sun or Love Is Strange. Ricochet is just a completely unhinged, borderline slapstick exploitation film. It’s Cape Fear on meth, and ironically came out the same year. Denzel matches Lithgow’s energy here. He begins the movie stripping to his drawers and shooting a hostage-holding Lithgow with a behind-the-back trick shot, then spends a portion of the movie on drugs ranting and raving in a pink robe. It’s wild shit, and wildly entertaining.

Best Denzel moment: Denzel, to his wife, after handing both of his daughters off to drug-dealing gangster Ice-T’s bodyguard for protection before going after Lithgow for the final showdown, and after his wife finds out he has tested positive for gonorrhea:

“Listen, you were right before. I should’ve trusted you with everything, but now you gotta trust me with everything too. Now, if you don’t love me, tell me right now, because I’m fighting for what used to be my life, and you are all of it. Are you with me?”

[Instant nod from his wife] “Yes.”

21. The Manchurian Candidate

Denzel Washington and Liev Schreiber in The Manchurian Candidate Image: Paramount Pictures

Director: Jonathan Demme
Where to watch: Max, or for digital rental/purchase

So you get Streep as Hillary Clinton and my guys Jeffrey Wright, Liev Schreiber, and Bruno Ganz, all directed by Jonathan Demme, in a political thriller about literally incestuous cronyism in party politics, phony patriotism, PTSD, the American war machine, the prison of ambition, and the nefarious influence of special interests on our representatives. Unfortunately, this Manchurian Candidate is unbearably goofy and nothing lands. No one is doing their best work, including Demme. And because it’s a Denzel film, which almost always have tidy resolutions, there isn’t even the conviction to go through with the standard cynical conspiracy thriller ending.

Manchurian provides an interesting opportunity to discuss Denzel and what makes him great. It’s not the worst movie on this list by far, but this is probably my least favorite performance of his, maybe ever. He’s playing this broken, paranoid guy, and it completely robs him of his warmth and charisma. I can’t even really think of another dramatic performance that does that. If you’re into over-the-top metaphors for late-’90s/early-aughts liberal politics, there’s another film down this list I greatly prefer.

Best Denzel moment: When Denzel takes his first shot at Liev, trying to convince him they’ve been compromised.

20. Deja Vu

Denzel Washington as Special Agent Douglas Carlin viewing a past projection of his dead wife in Deja Vu. Image: Touchstone Pictures

Director: Tony Scott
Where to watch: Free with ads on Tubi, or for digital rental/purchase

Very silly shit. The film doesn’t always respect or really even seem to understand the rules of time augmentation it sets up for itself. It turns into a series of Choose Your Own Adventures where Denzel goes out into the field, then the team back in the lab debates what happened and why and the nature of fate and time. It’s a pretty dry and joyless Denzel performance in a pretty dry and joyless film. Tony Scott gets the game ball for elevating the material. If you want to see a much, much better version of this, I’d recommend the brilliant and heavily slept-on Source Code.

Best Denzel moment: Denzel, watching helplessly from the future, reacting to his partner getting killed because he inadvertently led him to his death by meddling with the past.

19. Fallen

Denzel Washington, sitting on the steps in front of a log cabin, holds a gun in Fallen. Image: Warner Bros./Everett Collection

Director: Gregory Hoblit
Where to watch: Digital rental/purchase

What is this movie? A detective stumbling upon, then attempting to fight, a demonic consciousness of an evil angel passed by physical touch? What is its objective? To destroy humanity at the rate of one detective in a cabin in the woods every few decades? This is a borderline horror flick, but we’ve decided to classify it as a supernatural thriller. Unlike some of the films above, it’s pretty good at staying faithful to its dumb conceit and sticking to the rules it establishes. I also believe it’s probably the only film on this list where Denzel actually loses. But it’s Denzel doing his version of a Philip Marlowe — up against an angel-demon, of course, but still a good time.

Best Denzel moment: When Denzel thinks he’s killed the demon and starts singing its own theme song back at it.

18. The Equalizer

Denzel Washington twists a man’s arm behind his back while holding a gun in The Equalizer. Image: Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Director: Antoine Fuqua
Where to watch: Starz, or for digital rental/purchase

A fine action film, I guess. It’s Denzel’s bid for his own Mission: Impossible, another old piece of TV IP barely tethered to its superstar’s modern, globe-trotting franchise machine. You could also call it his John Wick, but unlike that film, it’s a movie that’s both too serious and not serious enough. Wick just had its best installment by far because it leaned into the over-the-top giddy spectacle of a phantasmagoric blood opera. The Equalizer is no fun. It also doesn’t have any real stakes. Denzel simply, methodically kills his way through an army of bland Russians with no tension, or any remote sense of danger or threat. Denzel is an inevitable guardian angel of death, with no flaws or weaknesses, so none of the kills mean that much to him, or to the film, or to us. The result is a competent slog, but as the rest of his body of work proves, we used to demand more from our “mindless” blood-soaked genre movies.

Best Denzel moment: Denzel gets one speech, at dinner with a Russian bad guy whose full-body tattoos make Master Gardener appear modest by comparison, and obviously nails it.

17. The Book of Eli

Denzel Washington wearing glasses, a heavy coat, and a scarf, holds a short shotgun in The Book of Eli. Image: Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection

Directors: Albert Hughes, Allen Hughes
Where to watch: For digital rental/purchase

A pretty fascinating, high-concept misfire: a Kung Fu dystopian Western about Christianity. Denzel is the lonely wandering ronin who lives simply and humbly off the land after a human-made apocalypse. He adheres to his own code, navigating an American wasteland overrun by scavengers and cannibals. Denzel doesn’t make many films about his faith, but this one is clearly deeply felt by both the directors and their star. The only “disappointment” for me is Gary Oldman, who is fine, but casting him as your bad guy means you’re walking on sacred ground, and through no fault of his own we get maybe 60% of the way to a The Professional/True Romance/Fifth Element-level performance.

Best Denzel moment: When Denzel, gut-shot and dying, recites the entirety of the King James Bible by heart so it can be committed to page and reintroduced to society.

16. The Magnificent Seven

Denzel Washington points a gun while riding a horse in The Magnificent Seven Image: Columbia Pictures/Everett Collection

Director: Antoine Fuqua
Where to watch: Digital rental/purchase

Denzel on a horse! If Fallen is Denzel channeling Bogart, here he channels John Wayne, albeit in the classic Badass Black Cowboy’s mustache-and-mutton-chop pairing. He has a death wish, and he’s enjoying himself. Can’t understate how special it is seeing one of the greatest movie stars of this era imprinting on a nearly extinct form of American cinema, even if it’s not the great film the cast list and trailer promised. It gets maybe 70% of the way there. Needed some shock and awe, some Eli Wallach energy. Instead, it typifies this tier on the list of competent and unspectacular popcorn flicks.

Best Denzel moment: Denzel eats a heart.

15. The Equalizer 2

Denzel Washington dual-wields pistols in The Equalizer 2 Image: Columbia Pictures/Everett Collection

Director: Antoine Fuqua
Where to watch: Hulu, or for digital rental/purchase

Improved on the original because of a crucial plot point that actually lends the story purpose (killing Melissa Leo), but not by much. I don’t really have much else to say about it, so for fun:

Best Denzel moment: When Denzel demands, and gets, a five-star Uber rating from the women-abusing frat bros he beats the shit out of in their apartment.

14. The Little Things

Denzel Washington wears a white t-shirt and stands in front of a green wall with pictures of murdered women in The Little Things Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

Director: John Lee Hancock
Where to watch: Max, or for digital rental/purchase

Notable because Denzel really leans into being paunchy and washed. We’re not quite hitting Roman J. Israel levels, but we’re not far off. The headline is a three-hander with Denzel and two weirdos with Oscars. But it’s Denzel’s dumber and less meticulous diet-Fincher. A film about obsession and the inability to live with life’s mysteries. The ball is fumbled in the red zone, and its resolution is problematic to say the least, but for much of its run time it’s atmospheric and well paced, and Denzel is unsurprisingly great as a detective battling madness and the mess he made of his life.

Best Denzel moment: Denzel has a heart-to-heart with the corpse of a murder victim that is legitimately some of his best work.

13. 2 Guns

Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg saunter forward as money falls from the air in 2 Guns Image: Universal/Everett Collection

Director: Baltasar Kormákur
Where to watch: Free with ads on Tubi, or for digital rental/purchase

This one’s based on a series of graphic novels by Steven Grant, with a screenplay from Blake Masters, who has worked primarily as a network TV workhorse, and there’s the issue. It needed to be 20-30% funnier. You see from the beginning what they’re going for, two frenemies bickering over a diner breakfast order and how much to tip as they cooly set the building on fire and head to their muscle car without looking back just before it explodes. It’s Avary/Tarantino/McQuarrie-in-the-’90s quippy action comedy territory. There’s still fun to be had: a heist, a lot of Mark Wahlberg with his eyebrows raised, ending his sentences with upspeak. For the most part, Wahlberg gets to have the lion’s share of the fun, except…

Best Denzel moment: Denzel, whose characters have sex surprisingly rarely considering how much of a sex symbol he has been, has sex with Paula Patton!

12. The Siege

Denzel Washington wears a bulletproof vest that says “FBI” and aims a gun while standing in what looks like a school gym in The Siege. Image: 20th Century Fox

Director: Edward Zwick
Where to watch: Starz, or for digital rental/purchase

A messy movie with fraught politics, but generally good ideas: The liberal resistance to the coming fascist post-9/11 Patriot Act world, but also one that is not above the fearmongering, stereotyping, and profiling that made it possible to exist in the first place. The Annette Bening character is probably the focus of an NYU poli sci class this semester. In a lot of ways this is a reprisal of Crimson Tide, with Denzel attempting to posit himself as the voice of liberal reason in the face of a black-and-white fascist.

Best Denzel moment: Denzel makes a stirring but hilariously quaint and naive argument against torture and why it will compromise the constitution and American way of life.

11. Unstoppable

Denzel Washington as Frank speaking into a walkie-talkie in Unstoppable. Image: Twentieth Century Fox

Director: Tony Scott
Where to watch: Digital rental/purchase

An admirable simplicity of purpose. This might be the only movie on this list with no gun and no bad guy. It’s a disaster movie, The Perfect Storm for trains. Purely in terms of direction, it’s Tony Scott’s best work throughout the partnership. Working-class Denzel is the best. How many people in action movies have actual jobs anymore?

Best Denzel moment: I know it had to be a mix of stunt work and green screen, but it’s Denzel hopping from car to car on top of the train, setting the individual brakes, trying to slow it down.

10. The Mighty Quinn

Denzel Washington and James Fox in The Mighty Quinn. Image: MGM Home Entertainment

Director: Carl Schenkel
Where to watch: Prime Video, free with a library card on Hoopla, free with ads on Tubi and Pluto TV

By no means a perfect film, The Mighty Quinn is a product of the late ’80s and feels very much like one (complete with a harebrained, nonsensical resolution). Denzel and the great Robert Townsend are doing borderline parody accents. It’s obvious there was no budget or experience behind the camera to really know how to shoot action. From fistfights to car accidents, those moments are rife with bad transitions and continuity errors. But it’s a fun and original bizarre hybrid: a musical noir set in Jamaica about race, class, imperialism, and corruption. And Denzel is great! He’s a rebel, beset on all sides by superiors who want to sweep a mess under the rug, and he manages a blend of determined, defiant, charming, and dignified while telling his elders to go fuck themselves.

Best Denzel moment: Dezel sings the blues in a piano bar/shack.

9. Out of Time

A smiling Denzel Washington, wearing a Hawaiian shirt, checks in at a hotel in Out of Time. Image: MGM/Everett Collection

Director: Carl Franklin
Where to watch: Max, or for digital rental/purchase

A blend of Bad Lieutenant and Body Heat. Notable in Denzel’s oeuvre because Matt Lee Whitlock is arguably the biggest loser he’s ever played, a piece of shit constantly working off his back foot (perhaps aside from another cop, Alonzo Harris in Training Day). The film is essentially a series of unlikely narrow escapes a sweat-drenched Denzel has to pull off to fix an escalating pile of fuck-ups and loose ends. Everyone’s slimy and dumb and depraved — a perfect old-school erotic thriller.

Best Denzel moment: When the book is finally closed and we gather to tell the tales and sing the songs, the real Johnny Appleseed, Bunyan, John Henry shit will be the time Denzel literally cucked Superman.

8. The Equalizer 3

Denzel Washington as Robert McCall aiming a pistol over the shoulder of a man in The Equalizer 3. Photo: Stefano Montesi/Sony Pictures Entertainment

Director: Antoine Fuqua
Where to watch: Netflix

I’m as shocked as you are, but the third installment of The Equalizer is not just the best of the series, it’s one of Denzel’s best action flicks. If I wasn’t afraid of recency bias, I might’ve ranked it higher. It starts with the fun grindhouse smut I requested in discussing the first installment of the franchise. It’s also much slower, a shockingly patient film that isn’t just about being washed, but actual mortality. It really leans into Denzel, who looks every day of his then 68 years, being old and frail. It’s at times moving, not just about protection or revenge, but rather about finding peace and preserving a way of life in a coastal Italian village.

But the true genius of the film is casting Denzel’s old co-star, Dakota Fanning, as his young protege, which essentially makes the film a Man on Fire sequel. It made me think about Ghost Protocol and Fast Five, two films that elevated their respective franchises by embracing all the old characters who had passed through and reveling in the lore. Why not turn The Equalizer into the Denzel extended universe? Obviously not the same characters across the non-canon films, but let’s bring them all back, Cheadle and Snipes and Owen and Wahlberg and Patton and Pine and Streep. I’ll watch 10 more of these.

Best Denzel moment: The reunion tea with Dakota Fanning.

7. Training Day

Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke lean on a car in Training Day Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

Director: Antoine Fuqua
Where to watch: Free with ads on Tubi, or for digital rental/purchase

One of my hotter takes is I think the Oscar has unduly raised the appraisal of this pretty goofy film whose message has aged terribly. A great cartoon Denzel performance, full of his most memorable (and I think crucially, quotable) line readings, and cartoons are obviously a lot of fun, but it’s not close to his best, so I won’t belabor the point. All I will say is on this latest rewatch, the “Not All Cops” message embodied by Ethan Hawke’s Boy Scout dignity was particularly grating. Also, I will just never get over the leap off the roof onto the hood of Denzel’s car. Bird-brain shit.

Best Denzel moment: Denzel making Ethan Hawke get wet.

6. Man on Fire

Creasy walking away from a car engulfed in flames beneath a highway underpass in Man on Fire. Image: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Director: Tony Scott
Where to watch: Max, or for digital rental/purchase

Obviously a great film, but Scott’s visual language hasn’t aged well. It’s treated and cut like a Nine Inch Nails video or a Fincher credit sequence. But aside from that, Scott is near his peak here. The camera rarely stops moving, even when it’s two people talking in a room, which adds to the film’s restless, manic energy of pissed-off pulp. Man on Fire is a quasi-religious text about a broken sinner killing his way to redemption. Denzel is that sinner, awash in layers of alcohol and nihilism, attempting to drown his regret. The chemistry with young Dakota Fanning jumps off the screen, and totally sells the extremes he goes to in order to bring her home.

Best Denzel moment: The film-long touching bond between an adorable little girl and her father figure.

5. Inside Man

(L-R) Willem Dafoe and Denzel Washington wearing bulletproof vests in front of a police van in Inside Man. Image: Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Director: Spike Lee
Where to watch: Starz, or for digital rental/purchase

At the outset of this list, I criticized Pelham for not honoring the Jewishness of its text. This film does that. It’s a multi-ethnic and bilingual melting pot of annoyed, annoying, combative, neurotic, and stubborn people getting on each other’s nerves in a high-stress and cramped environment. Or, they’re all “Jewish” New Yorkers. It’s the texture of New York that Pelham completely missed the boat on. Another in a rare sort of Denzel performance: Denzel the dumbass, always a step behind and a second late.

Best Denzel moment: It’s a cooperative with Spike Lee and his calling card, but the revved-up dolly shot might be Lee’s best. Denzel has just fallen for a gag execution, and his laser-focused anger in the shot is a microcosm of the film: He’s a marionette reacting to each step of Clive Owen’s meticulous plan.

4. The Pelican Brief

Denzel Washington, wearing a suit, jumps over a ledge in The Pelican Brief. Image: Warner Bros/Everett Collection

Director: Alan J. Pakula
Where to watch: For free with ads on Pluto TV, or for digital rental/purchase

A great, fascinating adaptation from the John Grisham era of ’90s Hollywood blockbusters, when a thought-provoking legal thriller could still be a blockbuster. Two Supreme Court justices are simultaneously assassinated, and a plucky law student (prime Julia Roberts) hacks the plot by studying case histories and following threads in a conspiracy that goes all the way to the Oval Office. Denzel is a determined, dickhead politico journalist who goes on the run with her (but infamously, in what is the film’s only glaring flaw, doesn’t have sex). It’s Pakula’s last great film, and the likes of Sam Shepard, John Lithgow, and Stanley Tucci show up to cook for perhaps three minutes each. It’s a pure piece of nostalgia for a better, lost age of movies.

Best Denzel moment: I’m currently working on a tough story with a lot of moving parts, and I greatly appreciate watching Denzel work a source.

3. Crimson Tide

Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman look intensely at each other while on a submarine, in Crimson Tide. Image: Buena Vista Pictures/Everett Collection

Director: Tony Scott
Where to watch: For digital rental/purchase

A chamber drama conveyed through cheesy Dutch angles about fascism and Cold War-era nuclear paranoia, but really on a very short list of the greatest all-time “actors at the top of their games face off” films. Coming off Malcolm X, this movie signaled Denzel becoming the greatest actor in America. He’s riveting as a rebellious son who actually has the upper hand on his father figure and refuses to give an inch. It’s a deceptively simple film — as the two men trade mutinies for control of a nuke — that doesn’t need the scaffolding of a B-, C-, and D-plot. There’s no spouse at home for Denzel to sneak off and spend five minutes with here and there to distract from the basic core of the story. It knows exactly what it is and what it wants to do, and lets its incredible talent fill in the rest.

Best Denzel moment: The shouting match when Denzel backs down Hackman and takes control of the sub.

2. John Q.

Denzel Washington, wearing a backwards baseball hat and a collared shirt, talks on a walkie-talkie while looking out of a window in John Q. Image: New Line Cinema/Courtesy Everett Collection

Director: Nick Cassavetes
Where to watch: Starz, or for digital rental/purchase

Could hear arguments for this not being an action movie, but I won’t listen. It’s a good old-fashioned Chayefsky-esque message film as agitprop, taking down capitalism, told by a working-class schlub trying to get his son a heart transplant and socialize health care in one Chicago hospital by any means necessary. There is some sermonizing infotainment, but it’s a righteous cause and doesn’t bog down the film or break the tension. It’s moving and thought-provoking, heady stuff for a dumped-out February popcorn thriller, and quite possibly the most emotional Denzel performance on this list and beyond.

Best Denzel moment: Denzel pleading for James Woods to take his heart out of his chest and give it to his son so he can live, and then when he says goodbye to him before the surgery. There’s zero chance you won’t cry.

1. Devil in a Blue Dress

Denzel Washington, wearing a white tanktop, reads the newspaper in Devil in a Blue Dress. Image: Sony Pictures

Director: Carl Franklin
Where to watch: For digital rental/purchase

In these films, it can be easy to lose sight of Denzel’s Blackness. Many of the roles on this list could’ve been played, by design, by any leading actor. Among many, many other elements in this incredible noir, what makes Devil in a Blue Dress special is that Liam Neeson couldn’t play Easy Rawlins. It’s Chinatown for race in America, a raw, sad, thrilling movie that showcases Denzel’s full complement of gifts and the very unique space he’s held in American cinema for 40 years. It’s channeling Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, but also Nella Larsen. There are great performances all around, with an outrageous, all-cylinders Don Cheadle being fairly recognized and winning a SAG Best Supporting Actor Award that should’ve been attached to an Oscar. But Denzel is center frame in every shot, and it’s unlike any of his other detective films because when the movie starts, he’s not established, not even a detective. It’s an incredible origin story, as we watch Easy discover his gifts and his calling. If this isn’t his very best performance, it’s on his Mount Rushmore.

Best Denzel moment: When Denzel is so caught up having sex with his friend’s girl that he completely forgets about the information he’s ostensibly having the sex to obtain.