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Denzel Washington’s Movies Ranked, From Worst to Best

From ‘Magnificent Seven’ to ‘Malcolm X,’ we break down every one of the ‘Fences’ star’s greatest (and most WTF) performances

One of the craziest things about Denzel Washington's career is that, even though he may well be on his way to a third Oscar – with his powerful, acclaimed lead role in this month's Fences, which he also directed – he still feels like he was robbed of statuettes several times over. Ever since his theatrical debut in the early 1980s, the actor has given some of the most incredible performances of our time across more than three decades: Who can deny his compelling work in films like Cry Freedom, The Mighty Quinn or Mo’ Better Blues? Or such Nineties classics as Malcolm X, Mississippi Masala or Crimson Tide? Or his brilliant later turns in movies like Inside Man and Flight?

Washington is the rare talent who can transcend – and usually improve – his material. He's become perhaps one of the more reliably bankable movie star in Hollywood's firmament, despite the fact that he generally avoids sequels and superhero movies. Watching and re-watching Denzel's films – 44 of them, since 1981, and all of them big parts – you're seized with a newfound respect for the man's craft, talent, and passion in his performances. That doesn't mean we're not gonna rank them, however! We took a look at the full arc of his career, and judged his work in these movies. Here are all of Denzel Washington's performances, from worst to best. What an impressive body of work.

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44

‘Virtuosity’ (1995)

Washington is completely out of his element in this colorfully stupid sci-fi thriller in which he plays a future cop who has to track down cyber-baddie Russell Crowe, who's playing … let's see if we've got this straight: a computer simulation hybrid of various serial killers, who's suddenly managed to become manifest in the real world. Neither can strike the right tongue-in-cheek tone to make it all work; they're like two pieces of filet mignon cast adrift in a day-old taco bowl. Crowe smirks. Washington glowers. You can't help but laugh.

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43

‘Heart Condition’ (1990)

Oof. This dreadfully shrill buddy comedy has Bob Hoskins as a racist sleazebag cop who gets a heart transplant from a black lawyer whom he tried to arrest. Trouble is, the lawyer's ghost also comes with the heart! [Whomp whomp] Welcome to two great actors wasted in a hare-brained attempt to mix topical humor with All of Me-style physical comedy. Washington mostly phones in an ill-conceived performance: He's cool and easygoing throughout, almost as if the film thinks making him anything else would be too troubling.

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42

‘Safe House’ (2012)

One of the worst films of the star's career (even though it was a hit) was made at the height of his stardom and yet manages to thoroughly – and inexplicably – waste him. His Tobin Frost is a former CIA operative who went rogue, which you'd think that this set-up would give this most nuanced of actors a chance to explore some inner conflict a la Training Day (see further up this list). Unfortunately, the actor's performance gets lost amid a mess of shaky cam and Cuisinart-inspired editing. "Safe" is not a word we'd use here.

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41

‘Fallen’ (1998)

An atmospheric possession thriller that gets increasingly dopey by the minute. Washington's cop discovers some strange goings on in the wake of the execution of a deranged murderer that he put away. Is there a demon making its way through the city and the police force? Has it been here all along?!? The actor can always make curiosity compelling, but here, he seems hamstrung by the film's weird tone (and that WTF last-act surprise) and despite the fact that some truly tragic things happen to him, he barely registers any emotions. We would say that Fallen is a movie that can't get up. But thankfully for you, we won't.

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40

‘The Book of Eli’ (2010)

As a blind warrior-wanderer making his way through a post-apocalyptic landscape, Washington manages to do the impossible: He somehow becomes as humorless as the rest of this turgid action epic. For all his enormous talent, the actor's one real weakness is his occasional tendency towards empty stoicism … and here's a prime example. All the film's derivative and reverential action posturing might have worked had it been done with even brief lapses into levity or sensitivity. The blame for that can't be laid entirely at the feet of its star – but he sure as hell doesn't help.

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39

‘The Magnificent Seven’ (2016)

Earlier this year, Washington reunited with his Training Day and Equalizer director Antoine Fuqua for this remake of the classic Sixties Western. The actor puts his natural sense of leadership to good use as a renegade calling the shots for ragged band of gunslingers: His quiet, calculating intensity is ideal for a Western hero. The movie itself is a chaotic mess, however, and Fuqua is a better director of character scenes than he is of action spectacle. Denzel should remind him of this the next time they work together.

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38

‘The Siege’ (1998)

This controversial thriller came under fire when it was released for its depiction of Islamic extremists conducting terrorist attacks in New York. In a post-9/11 era, it's gained an eerie, unwelcome resonance – and its depiction of innocent American Muslims herded into cages by a power-mad general is likely to color how it's seen in the Trump era. As the FBI agent trying both to track down the terrorists and to undermine he creeping fascism of a surveillance state, Washington makes for a solid hero – a compassionate professional, heroic yet conscientious. It's a reliable, though largely unremarkable, star turn in a not very good film … though we can't entirely call it far-fetched as we did in 1998.

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37

‘The Great Debaters’ (2007)

Washington also directed this inspirational period drama about a debate team at all-black Wiley College in Texas during the Depression, and his sincerity shines through in both his direction and his performance. The film is kind of all over the place – tackling segregation, debate tactics, romance, labor relations, and family conflict all at once, and often in fairly facile fashion. (His character is not only an inspirational teacher and debate coach, he's also, secretly, a labor organizer!) He has some unusually moving moments here; a fully rounded character, however, rarely emerges.

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36

‘Carbon Copy’ (1981)

Washington's feature debut remains one of the straight-up strangest films he's ever done. He plays Roger Porter, a young man who reconnects with the father he never knew; the problem is, Dad is Walter Whitney (George Segal), a well-heeled white corporate exec who's married into a wealthy, status-obsessed family. When Walter's secret comes out, he loses everything, father and son have to live together in "comical" poverty and misery. There's only so much an actor can do with a part like this, but Washington does get one fantastic scene: His "You walked away from a great lady" speech near the end is, oddly enough, one of his finest moments onscreen, and an early indicator of his future glory.

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35

‘Power’ (1986)

Sidney Lumet's satire-laced drama is all about veteran political operative Richard Gere, a man with a remarkable ability to shape people's images using the most devious of tactics. (Remember the days when a politician's image actually mattered?) Washington plays the corrupt public relations honcho in cahoots with Middle Eastern oil sheiks who are trying to get Gere to help elect their chosen candidate. He's just there to be calm, slick, and menacing, but it's still fun to see Denzel play a smooth corporate villain. Watching him, you can sense how this guy got as far as he did: He exudes stability even as he plots to undermine the democratic process.

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34

‘The Manchurian Candidate’ (2004)

Jonathan Demme's Dubya-era remake of the classic about a brainwashed soldier who becomes a political contender is less about treasonous conspiracies and more about the modern media landscape. Washington plays the Sinatra role: a heroic veteran who served alongside soon-to-be Vice Presidential candidate Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber). It's an engaging turn, though the shadow of the superior original overwhelms the proceedings.

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33

‘The Pelican Brief’ (1993)

Remember when you couldn't go to the multiplex without tripping over a dozen or so John Grisham politico-legal thriller adaptations? Our man plays a tough-minded Washington DC reporter; he hooks up with a law student (Julia Roberts) who has inadvertently uncovered a murderous conspiracy at the highest levels of government. Their chemistry is palpable, though it's not a role that calls on Washington to do all that much. Still, it's nice watching these two movie stars slowly come to care for one another. 

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32

‘The Preacher’s Wife’ (1996)

Washington is Dudley, a divine messenger who comes to Earth to help overwhelmed reverend Courtney B. Vance, but winds up spending much of his time with the man's beautiful, much-neglected wife, played by a lovely Whitney Houston. (It's a remake of the 1947 Cary Grant-Loretta Young fantasy The Bishop's Wife.) Dudley may be an angel, but he's no angel; just because he tries to save Vance's pulpit and flock doesn't mean he's free of amorous tendencies. Washington is likable, though he's playing second fiddle to Houston's radiance – and one doesn't need to do a lot of acting to be in awe of that.

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Everett Collection

31

‘For Queen & Country’ (1988)

In an early starring role, Washington plays a British soldier posted in Northern Ireland who's discharged and returns home to a neighborhood that's falling apart. He tries to keep it together amid warring gangs and a society that has no appreciation for his service. You can see the early glimpses of Washington's later heroic characters here – the upright man in a world of chaos. This is more social drama than crime thriller, and his tender performance is its chief asset.

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30

‘John Q’ (2002)

A father at the end of his rope (guess who?) takes part of a hospital hostage after getting screwed over by the health insurance system. These kinds of hot-button, ordinary-man-pushed-too-far Hollywood movies always traffic in histrionics that undermine their social messages, and this one's no exception — except for the fact that Washington can sell this kind of role in his sleep. He's truly excellent here: Watch the subtle shock his face registers as he starts committing his actions; even he can't believe what he's doing.

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29

‘The Equalizer’ (2014)

Reteaming with his Training Day director Antoine Fuqua, the actor makes his brooding ex-Special Forces an expert in slow-burn outrage; you have to admire the way he patiently bides his time until it's time to start stabbing, slicing, and gouging out eyeballs. But to his credit, he makes the performance not just gripping, but genuinely poignant. This was a remake of the TV show starring Edward Woodward, and it's a little too gleefully nihilistic in its violence. But watching Washington keep his cool, we sense a man who is trying to cling to his hard-earned peace for as long as he possibly can.

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28

‘The Bone Collector’ (1999)

This serial-killer thriller is indeed silly – and it certainly has its moments. As a paraplegic NYPD forensics expert, Denzel spends most of the movie immobile and in bed. But he makes the absolute most of it, relishing the chance to give Angelina Jolie's rookie investigator a hard time. It's a complex character: an angry man who has given up on life, but who remains committed to the work that gives him meaning. Washington's performance is why we end up not just understanding him, but liking him as well.

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27

‘A Soldier’s Story’ (1984)

Washington is just one member of the ensemble cast for Norman Jewison's Oscar-nominated mystery about the murder of an officer at an African-American military camp during World War II. But he immediately stands out – as a bespectacled hard-ass whose contempt for his superiors runs deep. (Washington had also played the same part in the original theatrical iteration of this story, titled A Soldier's Play.) In a lot of his early roles, the actor got noticed for the humanity, playfulness or compelling melancholy he brought to the parts; here, it's his intensity that strikes you. And, without giving too much away, there turns out to be a reason for that. Essential early Denzel viewing.

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26

‘Much Ado About Nothing’ (1993)

Kenneth Branagh's boisterous (and overbaked) adaptation of William Shakespeare's comedy has one genuinely brilliant idea – casting Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves as half-brothers. As Aragonian prince Don Pedro, the former conveys the natural ease and wisdom of a leader, while the almost-comically stoic latter actor makes for a compellingly embittered and conniving foil. On stage, Washington has done more prominent Bard roles – including Othello and Richard III – but here he's a welcome, grounded counterpoint to the other actors' impassioned histrionics.

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25

‘Ricochet’ (1991)

Holy crap, when was the last time you watched this fever dream? Marketed as just another anonymous cop drama, this Joel Silver production is in truth a bug-nuts, over-the-top extravaganza about crazed killer John Lithgow taking revenge on the hero cop-turned-Assistant-D.A. who put him away. We're talking white supremacist conspiracies, staged murders, doctored sex-tapes, forced-drug-addiction … the works. Oh, there's also a scene early on where Denzel strip