Denzel Washington, the Last Movie Star

08/02/2013 11:43 AM |

2 Guns movie Denzel Washington Mark Wahlberg

2 Guns: The list of sure things at the box office has farther shortened over the past few years: Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks have scaled back from mega-movies as they’ve aged, and their aging audience has scaled back right with them. Adam Sandler has one of the best box-office track records in the business, especially considering his effort levels, but despite the Grown Ups franchise, his comedies don’t quite scale the same $140 million heights they used to, at least not every time. Tom Cruise has made a go of coming back, but even a “back” Cruise must face facts: a Tom Cruise movie is no longer $100 million in the bank. It’s more like $75 million, which is nothing to sneeze at, but obviously the other side of a peak. Sandra Bullock has a decent record but hasn’t racked up enough huge hits to fully qualify as the biggest star out there. Even Will Fucking Smith had his first real box-office strikeout this summer with After Earth, which made less money than his sorta-underperforming-but-kinda-overperforming-if-you-remember-they’re-serious-dramas pair of Ali and Seven Pounds.


Last man standing, then, is Denzel Washington. Take a look at this guy’s charts. He doesn’t headline $200 million megahits (in fact, he never has), but the guy hits a solid double pretty much every single time he goes to bat. Since 1999, Washington has appeared in exactly three movies that grossed less than $50 million: two directorial efforts (Atwone Fisher and The Great Debaters) that focused on younger unknowns with Washington in supporting roles and did fine for small-scale dramas, and Out of Time, which grossed a then-respectable $41 million back in 2003 (which is $52 million in 2013 dollars). Otherwise, you put Washington in a movie (usually a thriller), and it grosses $65 million or more. What’s more, the numbers have been trending up with inflation: his last four averaged close to $100 million. It’s reasonable to expect 2 Guns, a rare summer movie for an actor who usually goes November/December, will vault up the list of his highest grossers (I’m guessing it’ll make the buddy-action money White House Down didn’t). In his wheelhouse, dude is reliable. His $80 million average for starring roles over the past 15 years or so may not be as glamorous as Cruise’s 90s run—you could argue that he and Sandler have merely been demoted down to Denzel numbers post-peak—but it’s probably the most consistent current record in Hollywood.

That’s about what Smith, Sandler, and Cruise offer, too: they’re reliable in the right movies, and it’s not as if Washington has tested the waters with so much as a comedy or romance in recent years (though Flight was a serious drama, it did have some plane-crash stuff in the trailers to make it look thriller-y). But that’s the thing: Washington is reliably reliable. He makes Denzel Washington movies almost every time, and people show up for them. I wouldn’t mind seeing Washington exercise his movie-star muscles; he’s usually either the flawed good guy or the charismatic bad guy in Tony Scott movies or Imitation Tony Scott movies. But the similarities across Unstoppable and The Taking of Pelham 123 and Inside Man and Safe House don’t seem to rankle audiences as much as, say, Johnny Depp “always” doing the same (totally different) thing—and they certainly don’t rankle me, even though Flight reminded everyone just how good Washington can be in a challenging role. There is something deeply satisfying and comforting about Washington’s movie-star presence that somehow feels less lazy than other endlessly revived personas. In a lot of ways, he’s an old-fashioned movie star in the tradition of Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart: guys with a recognizable persona (and particular voice and cadence—in Grant and Stewart’s case, parodied by everyone, and in Washington’s case expertly and hilariously parodied by Jay Pharoah on Saturday Night Live) that they could revisit and tweak over the years. Washington doesn’t just appear in potentially generic-looking movies like 2 Guns; he sells it without breaking a sweat.