Denzel Washington is one of those actors I really like but seldom see in movies. Tell a lie—I actually have seen him in at least five movies in the past eight years, and the truth is I just don’t remember them. He was great in Fences,which is a fine film. That same year saw him turn in a serviceable performance in the non-movie The Magnificent Seven, which I forgot while it was playing. Before that, he turned in a superb performance as a broody, alcoholic pilot in Bob Zemeckis’ surprisingly subtle Flight. He was also in Tony Scott’s last two films, Unstoppable and The Taking of Pellham 1, 2, 3, only the latter of which I saw, but if compared to the former, I assume would be as indistinguishable in my memory as Man on Fire and Enemy of the State (except for Will Smith being in the latter, and running around a lot).
What can we learn from this rant? Well, first of all, Tony Scott is the star of all Tony Scott’s movies. (Except maybe The Hunger, which features David Bowie, and the breasts of both Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve.) Second of all, I think we can safely say big stars are in big movies, and big movies are increasingly less different or memorable. (Even Fences is clear Oscar-bait and far from an “indie”.)
Lastly, and most importantly, it means that when there’s a Denzel retrospective, I’m gonna say, “Love his acting. Not crazy about his films.” In spite of that, however, we opted to see Devil in a Blue Dress as part of the “Everybody Loves Denzel” month at the local bijou.
And it is, by far, one of my favorites of his, both as a film and performance, and a reminder that even 20 years ago we could have a movie with racial themes that was still a good movie. Directed by Carl Franklin (who’s probably best known for his acting work on shows like “The A-Team”), the movie is primarily a hard-boiled detective noir, with Denzel as a down-on-his-luck factory worker who ends up trying to score some cash by locating a wandering girlfriend (Jennifer Beals). Seems this girl likes to hang out in the darker areas of town, and before you know it Easy Rawlins (Washington) is off on the adventure of his life.
Well, one of them. The movie is based on a book series by Walter Mosley, a half-black/half-Jewish writer whose works should probably be mined for a lot more source material.
The beauty of this construction is that: The hard-boiled detective is already an outsider, he’s already hated by the cops, and he’s always being targeted by thugs. As a black man in post-war L.A., Easy has all those problems squared. Bogie (whether Archer or Spade) can stand around and play it cool when the cops finger him for a crime, but the cops will just shoot Easy. So all the usual complications are amped up by the fact that he can’t be anywhere around the scene of a crime if it can be pinned on him.
The plot is convoluted, the characters colorful, and gives you a slice-of-life that you don’t see in movies: the black middle-class. Rawlins motivation in taking the job is to make his mortgage, and his sense of his home being his castle is highly pronounced. His neighborhood is modest, but nice, and there’s an optimism infused throughout the proceedings.
“Ya boi” Zach, of Diversity and Comics fame has a trope he calls “Good Guy Gordon,” wherein if you see a black person in a comic book, he has to be a bland, wise, generally even-keeled soul—this has among its many sins, the effect of making the character boring. Ain’t none of that here. Easy is a good guy, but he’s no saint. In fact, not a single character in this book is “all saint” or “all sinner”, and most of them tend toward a whole lot of “sinner” (again in classic noir style). Don Cheadle steals the show as Easy’s childhood friend, Mouse, and he’s essentially psychotic, and there’s both comedy and drama associated with Rawlins trying to utilize Mouse’s willingness to do just about anything, while minimizing the damage he knows Mouse will cause.
The upshot of all this is that even though this is a racial story, with race suffusing every aspect of the plot, you’re not beaten to death with a pre-determined moral narrative, and you end up with basically what you wanted in the first place: A high quality mystery with no small amount of action and suspense, and a great deal of fun. Though this is one of Denzel’s “lesser films” by most rankings, we actually enjoyed it more than Glory—and there was no way we were going to sit through three hours of Malcolm X—the next week’s Denzel offering.
This is an easy film to overlook, but it gets our enthusiastic recommendation.