Thursday 14 December 2017

No more Mr Nice Guy

At one point during his latest big-screen outing, Safe House (out this week), an old friend greets Denzel Washington's ex-CIA pin-up with the line, "Hey, the black Dorian Gray". And he's not far wrong, the much-loved actor is looking far younger than any 57-year-old man has any right to look.

As you watch Denzel Washington outwit and slickly batter yet another bunch of goons in Safe House though, you slowly realise that calling him the black Dorian Gray isn't quite the full story.

Respected actor, Oscar-winner, not afraid to take on political and socio-political issues through his films -- films that dealt with the struggles that his people have faced down through the decades? And now he's using all that hard-earned respectability to add a little gravitas to the much-maligned action hero role?

What we've got here, ladies and gentlemen, is the black Liam Neeson.

"Yeah, I can live with that!" smiles Washington.


"Liam's a gentleman, and a fine actor, so, if I can be associated with him in any way whatsoever, I'll take it."

It's another Irishman, Liam Cunningham, who delivers the line, "You look good" to Washington in the opening scenes of Safe House, to which the actor replies, with a wry smile, "I do, don't I?"

It's a moment that will no doubt give audiences a moment to chuckle, especially those of the female persuasion, because Denzel Hayes Washington Jr does indeed look good.


Even when he's playing the baddie -- as Washington did to Oscar-winning effect in 2001's Training Day, and later in Ridley Scott's 2007 true-life American Gangster -- you can't help but root for the guy. If Denzel Washington is going to pop a cap in someone's ass, chances are, they deserved it.

"I have been getting away with some nasty stuff of late, haven't I?" laughs Washington. "But, you know, I always look for the motivation for such behaviour, some understanding of who this man is, and why he's doing the things he does.

"No matter how cruel his actions may seem, there's usually a good reason. Although, sometimes, yeah, it's really just money and power."

The reason Washington's Tobin Frost does cruel things to people in Safe House -- no grenades this time, you'll be glad to hear, just bullets and beatings -- isn't entirely clear at first.

A rogue CIA agent who's been trading intelligence for the last 10 years, the legendary Frost is in Cape Town and comes into possession of a top-secret file that instantly has heavy-armed goons on his trail.

And so, he turns himself in to the US embassy, locking rival CIA heavyweights David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson) and Catherine Linklater (Vera Farmiga) into a race to wheel him in.

The man behind the camera is rising Swedish director Daniel Espinosa, and it's telling that he's employed both the cinematographer, Oliver Wood, who shot all three Bourne movies, and editor Richard Pearson, who worked on The Bourne Supremacy.

"There's definitely a new breed of action film these days," says Washington, "and, for many people, it's best represented by the Bourne movies. I think it was happening elsewhere already -- you look at Tony Scott's work, for example -- but it's the way audiences read action movies now. Partly because of video games, the speed is incredibly quick."

For Washington, getting to play the baddie has helped expand his career too.

"It's always a danger, when you play the hero quite a lot, that people will expect something of your character from the get-go," he says.

"Winning the Oscar for Training Day helped change that. It also meant that people were ready to accept that heroes can have flaws and flawed people can be heroes. The ideal is having the audience unsure of where you're going to go next.

"I'm not really interested in playing the clean-cut hero. Those guys are boring ... "

Coming up for Washington is Robert Zemeckis' return to live action, Flight, playing the lead alongside John Goodman and Don Cheadle, while there's a possibility of him joining Mark Wahlberg in the mob drama 2 Guns, due to start later this year.


With two Oscars under his belt (as well as Best Actor for Training Day, 12 years earlier, it was Best Supporting Actor for Glory), two Golden Globes and a Tony Award, whatever Washington decides to do these days, he's got the luxury of being able to choose only the projects that he truly likes.

"I don't want to waste my time, or anyone else's, making movies that mean nothing to me," he finishes.

"What's the point in that? Having to think about what will be a hit, and what will get me noticed, is something you have to think about at the start, but I certainly don't feel that way now. I don't think I ever really felt that way. I just followed my instincts, and I knew, at the very least, the work would be interesting.

"I was lucky enough to have some of those interesting projects become hits too, and now, you know, people might just take a chance with me. They might just trust my instincts, give those films I've chosen to make, a chance.

"That's a good feeling, having people who will go and see your movies, no matter what the genre, no matter what the character. I'm blessed, you know. Just like Liam Neeson."

Safe House hits cinemas on Friday

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