My problem with Washington is primarily the ticks that he has, the facial movements, the grunts, the sense of supposed emotion the combination of these is meant to bring. It seems to me that these ticks creep into everything he does, and renders each character he plays not the character, but as Denzel. It doesn't matter if he's a burnt out soldier, doesn't matter if he's a criminal mastermind, doesn't matter if he's a corrupt cop, it just doesn't the fuck matter. As soon as he opens his mouth, as soon as he begins to emote, Denzelness comes in strong and powerful. A lot of this can be shown in the trailer for the sub par bio-crime flick American Gangster:
In the film, Lucas, Washington's character, is rendered as a family man, an intelligent, articulate man who builds his empire on his own merits. Regardless of if this was true or not--I've no idea, but the view presented here smacks of being on that doesn't connect with the subject matter--my opinion is that this characterisation is at the base of every Washington role in a film.
In fact, you can almost argue that Washington's Lucus is not that dissimilar in performance to his performance of Rubin Carter in the same the Hurricane:
Oh, sure, there's no moment in American Gangster when Frank Lucus says, "Hate put me in prison, but love's going to break me out," but who knows what could have happened between him and Russel Crowe if there'd been another hour.
For most of Washington's films, his inability to immerse himself into an entirely new persona is not a turn off, though there have been some failures. Take Training Day as an example:
Did you manage to sit through all of that?
Here, Washington is giving the world his hard guy act, though it's crumbled, and he is losing his position of authority. But it's painful to watch: Street Washington is like taking Barbie and putting the toy in gangster clothes and then telling the world how real it is living off a couple of hundred dollars a week with two kids. It's just not cutting it, it's not real, not even in the film sense: Washington's own articulateness ruins it, even as he repeats hit me, hit me, trying to make the script sound as if it hasn't been written by someone not connected with porn, and unable to fully degenerate as the moment is called for.
It's nice that I haven't seen Ethan Hawke in a film for a while, though.
Anyhow, this is what I say when I find myself in Denzel Washington conversations, which are oddly enough, a little more frequent than one would think. Perhaps you think differently to me, perhaps not. I'm not too fussed. It's a good fun argument to have, and I leave you now with this clip from the forgettable revenge thriller Man on Fire, which has a surprising number of fan edits on youtube. In this one, Washington's dialogue has been stripped back, and it plays like a music video, but even then, the Denzelness is in full swing.