A Look Back at the Film Collaborations of Denzel Washington and Director Tony Scott

     November 10, 2010

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For better or worse, Denzel Washington and Tony Scott have brought their creative minds together on numerous occasions. Over the span of 15 years they’ve tackled revenge, terrorism, time travel and, in a sense, nuclear war. This week’s Unstoppable marks their fifth collaboration together, and so we thought it’d be fun to have a look back at the duo’s track record, covering the highs and lows of their lucrative, sometimes even sensational partnership. Hit the jump to revisit their previous films.

Crimson Tide (1995)

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Submarine movies are a tough sell. A story set within the confines of a steel coffin doesn’t always produce the most spectacular of results. However, there have been a handful of great sub flicks over the years, namely Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), Das Boot (1981) and the terrific The Hunt for Red October (1989). While Crimson Tide isn’t likely considered one of the all-time classic films in the sub-genre (pun intended), it does provide ample entertainment of the Jerry Bruckheimer/Don Simpson variety – i.e. slick action sequences, high production values, testosterone-fueled masochism and a thrilling score from Hans Zimmer. The film marked the first collaboration between star Denzel Washington, who was red-hot after the one-two punch of The Pelican Brief and Philadelphia, and director Tony Scott, best known for the Tom Cruise cheese-fest Top Gun. The film, about dueling captains [Correction: Hackman played a captain while Washington played the Executive Officer] set aboard a crippled high-powered nuclear submarine, proved to be both financially and critically successful, with Washington and fellow co-star Gene Hackman receiving much acclaim for their intense, powerhouse performances. It’s not every day you run into a smart Bruckheimer production – one with racial undercurrents, and thought provoking themes. Arguably the strongest in the Washington/Scott canon, Crimson Tide is an exciting, gripping and ultimately rewarding experience. Plus it’s got Viggo Mortensen. What’s not to like?

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 86%

Box Office Gross: $91 million nationwide; $66 million overseas; $157.3 million total

Man on Fire (2004)

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It would be nine long years before Washington teamed-up with Scott again. At this point in their careers, Washington was a two-time Academy Award-winner (having nabbed a statuette for Training Day three years prior), while the director was trying to reconcile a decidedly sporadic career of hits and misses. Taking a decidedly different route than their submarine thriller, the pair enlisted the aid of then-youngster Dakota Fanning, Radha Mitchell and Marc Anthony for this violent tale of kidnapping and revenge, based on A.J. Quinnell’s 1981 novel of the same name. Washington’s Creasy is a hero for the ages – think Dirty Harry with a heavy dose of Tom Clancy’s John Clark – and the actor supplied the character with a controlled performance that stands as one of his best to date. Assigned to protect the young Pita (Fanning), Creasy strikes a unique friendship with the girl, and seemingly buries the demons of his past. When Pita is kidnapped, however, Creasy is forced to unleash a whole lotta pain on her abductees. Said pain includes an anal bomb (the victim is tied facedown to the top of a car with a timed bomb up his ass), an interrogation involving the cutting off of fingers, and a variety of bloody assaults utilizing weaponry of all kind. The film’s structure threw off some – it starts off as a sort-of cute drama before diving into a full-blown, gory and gritty action-fest – but the results were stunning. Scott took a unique approach to the film, utilizing de-saturated colors, and hyperactive editing (something he dabbled with in Enemy of the State and Spy Game) that resulted in a feeling of intensity the director has yet to match. Critics balked at Scott’s over-the-top violence, but praised Washington’s performance. That’s too bad. I’ll admit the film is uneven, and even a tad unrelenting in its depictions of revenge, but there’s no denying Man on Fire is a powerful, ultimately underrated film.

RT Score: 39%

Box Office Gross: $78 million nationwide; $52 million overseas; $130 million total

Déjà Vu (2006)

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Déjà Vu proved a very different film for both Washington and Scott. The former had previously played a role in the 1995 thriller Virtuosity, opposite a very young Russell Crowe, but otherwise had yet to really dive into the science fiction arena. Déjà Vu afforded the opportunity to do just that, and both Scott and Washington delivered in high style – if not in an overtly logic-free manner. Washington plays ATF Special Agent Douglas Carlin, assigned to investigate a New Orleans-ferry bomb incident carried out by a madman (Jim Caviezel). Carlin is introduced to a new program called “Snow White” that allows brief glimpses into the past and, ultimately, the chance for Carlin to journey back in time, hook up with Paula Patton and attempt to save the day. While slightly predictable, and less thrilling than either of their previous team efforts, Déjà Vu remains an intriguing and satisfying thriller nonetheless. Scott’s film boasts some exciting set-pieces, the best being an intense car chase set in the present, but carried out in the past (it makes sense in the thick of the story), not to mention some nifty sci-fi/time travel ideas that are sure to prompt discussion. Washington is typically solid, if not slightly bored in appearance, whilst Caviezel sheds himself of his Christ-like image with a truly unsettling performance of his own. Scott’s direction was (at this point) typically hypnotic. The director, coming off the absurd Domino, utilized the same technique he employed in Man On Fire – quick cuts, dark color tones – to a less satisfying degree. Déjà Vu is solid entertainment, worth watching to be sure, but something of a letdown when you consider all that came before.

RT Score: 57%

Box Office Gross: $64 million nationwide; $116 million overseas; $180 million total

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009)

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Washington and Scott next decided to try their hand at remakes [Correction: Man on Fire was a remake of a 1987 film starring Scott Glenn] , and set their sights on the classic 1974 Joseph Sargent film The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. That film starred Walter Matthau and the great Robert Shaw; for his film, Scott employed Washington and John Travolta. The remake follows Sargent’s quite accurately (only the ending is changed), but ups the intensity (and decibel meter) considerably. Washington sleepwalks through his role as a cynical MTA employee, who is forced to communicate with the hijackers of a hijacked subway train. Travolta, on the other hand, has a ball playing the film’s antagonist. He screams and cusses himself hoarse, much to the annoyance of the audience. I grew tired of hearing him, but maybe that was the point. The one saving grace of Scott’s film is James Gandolfini, popping in as a lowly mayor who more or less delivers the film’s best line – as police cars race through the street, wrecking everything in their path, attempting to deliver the requested money to the hijackers, a quick-cut finds a high-strung Gandolfini who quips, “Why the fuck didn’t we just use a helicopter?” (A line lifted from the original). Remakes are a difficult breed to conquer, especially those involving classic, highly regarded films such as Pelham. The problem here is that neither Scott nor Washington is fully committed to the project. The ending lacks spark, the dialogue is flat. It’s clear the duo were attempting a different approach to the material, one that challenges our inner-fears of terrorism in general, but the set-up (regarding a halted train) requires actors of a more meticulous manner. By now Washington has played every role imaginable; he does his best when playing purpose-driven individuals sprinkled with a tad of desperation (hence the Oscar for Training Day). Ordinary doesn’t suit him well; he just doesn’t look the part. The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is, in the very least, watchable. My recommendation? Rent the original, even if it is directed by the same man who brought us Jaws: The Revenge.

RT Score: 51%

Box Office Gross: $65 million nationwide; $84 million overseas; $150 million total

While the Washington/Scott pairing has decreased in quality over the years, there’s no doubt the duo have provided ample, sometimes terrific, entertainment. Unstoppable looks like just the sort of high octane vehicle that may push them over-the-top both critically and financially. They may not win Oscars together, but both Denzel Washington and Tony Scott know what it takes to please a crowd.

Unstoppable opens this Friday.

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