Denzel Washinton’s Greatest Thrillers

One of the most respected actors of his generation is Denzel Washington, who’s worked on numerous occasions with high-quality film directors. A few of them show up on this very list. Some of the biggest and best films of his career can best be classified as thrillers. And while a couple of the first picks pale in comparison to the list’s upper echelon, they’re all of notable quality in the end. You’ll without a doubt recognize most of the titles that appear, while a few others might appear more unfamiliar. But they all hold up well today, and they’re well worth your time overall. All that said, these are the ten greatest thrillers amid Denzel Washington’s filmography, ranked.

10 Safe House

Universal Pictures

Co-starring Ryan Reynolds with supporting performances from Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson, it’s worth noting off the bat that they all perform brilliantly in Safe House (2012) despite what the film’s middling numbers of success may imply. And with great shot value in tandem with fluid tactics of continuity editing, it’s also a joy to watch until its final frame.

Tense moments in the opening act flourish into a plot of true and consistent thrills as Washington’s character Tobin Frost who is being interrogated by the CIA. He’s been accused of betraying the Company, with Reynolds playing an agent in charge of the titular safe house where the interrogations take place. And although this isn’t quite the best film you’ll read about today, it is among the most underrated.

9 Déjà Vu

Denzel Washington in Déjà Vu
Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

If it weren’t for the seminal films he made with filmmaker Spike Lee, the greatest collaborator of Denzel Washington would be director Tony Scott. Their first film on the list, Denzel stars in Déjà Vu (2006) as an AFT Special Agent named Douglas Carlin. To prevent a domestic terrorist attack and save the woman he loves, Carlin goes back in time via a wormhole. An intriguing premise off the bat.

And although the film came up short in the eyes of critics, it made great money at the worldwide box office. Plus, it’s held in high regard today, and justifiably so. Although it fails to balance multiple genres, Déjà Vu does deliver some consistent thrills with meaningful dialogue and engaging performances to boot. It’s some great work from Denzel, and it deserves a spot on a list of his all-time greatest thrillers.

8 The Manchurian Candidate

Denzel Washington in The Manchurian Candidate 
Scott Rudin Productions

A political thriller with psychological twists, The Manchurian Candidate (2004) goes down as a remake of a film of the same name from 1962. And although the original with Frank Sinatra did release to greater critical acclaim, this project with Denzel as the lead nonetheless saw great success. Well, in the critical department. It didn’t exactly make waves at the box office.

But considering the nature of its thrilling plot in tandem with the committed efforts of its leads — there’s also Meryl Streep, Liev Schreiber, Jon Voight, and Jeffrey Wright — this entry should’ve resonated across the board of viewership. Luckily, it holds decent name value today as its political intrigue is matched by unexpected thrills regarding brain implants. Director Jonathan Demme saw the overall product into wonderful fruition, and the result was an all-time great thrill from Washington.

7 The Pelican Brief

Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts in The Pelican Brief
Warner Bros 

Based on a novel by John Grisham, this entry establishes a tangible tone of thrilling proportions within its opening scene. And soon thereafter, a bona fide thrill ride plays out until the film’s final frame thanks to an intriguing inciting incident. When two Supreme Court Justices are assassinated, a law student is targeted and forced on the run. She’s aided by a reporter, and from there they unravel a string of conspiracies.

The law student is played by Julia Roberts, while Denzel portrays the journalist. They share one of the greatest chemistries out of any two performers featured within film’s on the list, and The Pelican Brief (1993) as a whole should go down among the more underrated entries of their filmographies. Sure, it holds decent name value. But critics didn’t see light in its quality as a well-made thriller, and now’s the time it got more respect.

6 Man on Fire

Man on Fire by Tony Scott
20th Century Fox

Marking the second film on the list directed by Tony Scott, there’s another name worth noting off the bat within Man on Fire (2004), now regarding its cast: Christopher Walken. He’s another frequent collaborator of Scott’s, having worked with him in the prior decade on the critical darling True Romance (1993). That’s among the best films from everyone involved, while Domino (2005) — also directed by Scott with Walken among its cast — falls on the opposite end of the qualitative spectrum. But by far, Man on Fire is their most overlooked.

Sure, the film at hand accrued great money at the worldwide box office, and fans have always seen light in its quality. But on critical consensus website Rotten Tomatoes, it holds a disgraceful approval rating of 39%. It deserves more attention just for its performances, let alone the other high-quality elements of filmmaking at play. But in the end, there’s no denying its status as a high-quality thriller that stars Denzel Washington.

5 Unstoppable

Denzel Washington and Chris Pine in Unstoppable (2010)
20th Century Fox

Regarding both camerawork and editing, with clear-cut shot value pieced together by smooth tactics of continuity transitioning, many behind-the-scenes elements of filmmaking render Unstoppable (2010) an essential thriller starring Denzel Washington. And none of that was to even touch on the wit of the script, the allure of its sound design, or the brilliant direction from the great Tony Scott.

But along with co-star Chris Pine, the leads of course bring impressive efforts of acting to the table of high-quality filmmaking, as well. It’s a thrilling journey that they see into brilliant fruition, with its runaway train setting facilitating numerous moments of intensity. Scott and Washington have provided film fans with multiple Hollywood thrillers, and Unstoppable is among their best.

4 Inside Man

Inside Man by Spike Lee
Universal Pictures 

The most thrilling film of Spike Lee’s career goes to Inside Man (2006), which also marks his only collaboration with Denzel to appear on the list. The two had teamed up three times prior with Mo’ Better Blues (1990), Malcolm X (1992), and He Got Game (1998). They all have star-studded casts, and somehow, this heist thriller may take the cake. Opposite Denzel is Clive Owen as the bank robber, while Jodie Foster appears as a Manhattan fixer.

And that’s not even accounting for other talented names like Christopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. They all perform wonderfully in one of Hollywood’s most memorable heist films of recent memory, with a hostage negotiation providing great thrills to an already exciting plot. This entry greatly bolsters Denzel’s case as a master of Hollywood thrills.

3 Crimson Tide

Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman in Crimson Tide
Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

In his first ever collaboration with Tony Scott, the actor at hand stars alongside another king of Hollywood thrills in Gene Hackman. This among the finest films of their respective careers, with Crimson Tide (1995) receiving widespread acclaim upon release from critics and audiences alike. The leads share a wonderful rapport from their first featured scene, and they deliver their dialogue with a dazzling dynamism.

Hackman plays a commanding officer of a submarine, while Washington shows up as an executive officer, and the two butt heads after receiving conflicting orders re: a missile launch. And thanks to well-written dialogue in an overall compelling plot, Crimson Tide is led to qualitative heights from every name among its cast and crew. The project has aged well, too, and it will forever be among the greatest thrillers to feature Denzel Washington.

2 Training Day

Denzel Washington in Training Day
Warner Bros. Pictures

Denzel has worked with two different American directors on four disparate occasions. Spike Lee has already been touched on, while he and Tony Scott worked together five times in total. But his collaborations with Antoine Fuqua are fresher with regard to release. They’ve teamed up for all three Equalizer films, which bolster great name value as action titles. But by far, the best project under the collective belt of Washington and Fuqua would haev to be Training Day (2001).

Related: Here’s Every Antoine Fuqua Movie, Ranked

Co-starring Ethan Hawke, it’s a famous plot about police corruption as Washinton’s LAPD narcotics officer takes Hawke’s rookie under his wing. And aside from the indelible efforts of the lead thespians, you’ll want to indulge in Training Day for the wit of its script. With thought-out plot points and memorable dialogue, it’s a compelling journey that should go down among Washington’s best ever thrillers.

1 Devil in a Blue Dress

Denzel Washington in Devil in a Blue Dress
Sony Pictures Releasing

These top few picks could wind up at number one on any given film fan’s list. But written and directed by Carl Franklin with supporting efforts from Jennifer Beals and Tom Sizemore, this entry deserves more credit in the eyes of fans for the performances of its cast alone. In that regard: even outshining the actor of the hour was Don Cheadle, who highlights Devil in a Blue Dress (1995) as Mouse Alexander from his introductory scene until the film’s final frame.

Related: The 25 Most Underrated Movies From the 1990s

Following Washington’s protagonist Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, a World War II veteran looking for work, the plot kicks off when he’s offered cash to track down a missing woman. Beals plays the latter, named Daphne Monet, while Sizemore provides the antagonistic efforts. And aside from Cheadle’s performance, there’s plenty worth writing home about herein, from the fluidity of its script to the careful curation of its color palette. Despite a paucity of popularity, Devil in a Blue Dress should be cited among the finest films of Washington’s career, let alone with regard to thrillers.


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