Hey gang, Hans here delivering your weekly dose of Below Radar wackiness. I just watched the Taking of Pelham 123 trailer for the first time the other day, and though I know it will probably just be another disposable action movie, I am psyched to see it and hoping that they prove me wrong. But I’m also interested to see it because we will witness something we haven’t seen in a while: Denzel Washington actually playing a character.
Let me unpack that a bit. I am about 50-50 on Denzel at this point in his career, and it is mainly due to the disposable tripe that we’ve seen him churn out since he won his second Oscar; Out of Time, Inside Man, Deja Vu, Man on Fire, all of these films show Denzel affecting the same straight-ahead action man persona while laughing all the way to the bank. He’s started playing it safe with uniformly strong but stock characters. Even his interesting work in American Gangster was marred by its similarity to his equally interesting if overrated performance in Training Day (an Oscar? really?). These films show the man affecting a new persona, that of the dark but charming sociopath, as capable of seducing you as he is blowing your head off. Anti-heroes are interesting, but Washington seems to merely be incorporating this into his arsenal of two choices: either I’m the strong, militant hero or I’m the strong, militant anti-hero.
Pelham looks interesting because the trailer emphasizes how Washington is playing a weaker, more mundane hero. This would be great if it didn’t feel so contrived for the sake of box office; Tony Scott’s last movie with Washington, Deja Vu, underperformed, which has no doubt prompted another approach to his usual heroes in the hope of repackaging Denzel’s action movie image. There is way more emphasis in the trailer on his character’s fearful, schlubby nature than there needs to be: with a beard and a gut, Denzel dumps coffee down his shirt accidentally, is lost in his negotiation with John Travolta’s sociopath, makes a phone call to his wife telling her about his confrontation with the villain that will soon occur, prompting only a “get milk on your way home” as a response. Ham-handed moments like these clumsily accent the fact that Scott and his screenwriter, Brian Helgeland, are trying desperately to paint Washington in a less cool, less ballsy light.
This probably won’t be a real character, but Washington’s action persona wrapped in the guise of an agreeable schmuck. Ultimately, I don’t think it will amount to much of a performance, at least not when you compare it to the quality of work we saw from Washington after he won his first Oscar for Glory. There were some standard action hero roles in there, but there were also several dark and interesting choices as well: the alcoholic war hero in the underrated Courage Under Fire, the convict father who returns to ask his son’s forgiveness in He Got Game, and, the subject of today’s review, the oppressed war hero turned private eye, Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, in Carl Franklin’s underseen but quite excellent 1995 film noir, Devil in a Blue Dress.
The film is set in Los Angeles, 1948. With the economy booming after the war, Easy, a Texas machinist, has come to L.A. hoping to wet his beak on the prosperity. Things haven’t turned out quite as he hoped. As the film opens, he is fired by his racist boss from his job in an aircraft manufacturing company. He is behind on the payments for the house he loves, and is desperate to come up with some cash. One day in a bar, he is introduced to DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore), supposedly a private eye, who offers Easy a proposition: needing to locate a girl he thinks is moving in the black community, he offers $200 for her location. Easy, looking at the money for a couple of house payments, agrees.
Things, as you would expect, are not this simple. The girl is Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals), who used to date a former mayoral candidate, Todd Carter (Terry Kinney), who dropped out of the race just after the relationship ended. Easy closes in on her after a fling with one of her friends, Corretta James (Lisa Nicole Carson), who turns up dead just after her night with him. There is also Matthew Terrell (Maury Chaykin), the man running against Carter, who is equally interested in Daphne’s whereabouts.
Easy locates the girl after she calls him to her hotel room in the hope of securing his services. She needs to be driven to a meeting with a man who will deliver her an important letter (how important? watch the movie). After they find him dead in his house, Daphne splits, leaving Easy holding the bag on a crime he had nothing to do with. That is of little matter to the police, who would like nothing more than to pin a white man’s murder on an insignificant Negro. Albright, who works for Terrell, reveals himself as a menace, threatening to throw Easy to the wolves if he doesn’t help bring him the girl. Easy goes from frame to fighter in about a nano-second; he enlists the help of an old Texas friend, the trigger-happy Mouse (Don Cheadle), in hopes of saving the girl and clearing his own name.
Okay, everybody got all that? This plot belongs to the noir universe, where every twist the story takes is a little more complicated and strange than the last one. The film owes a lot to conventions of the genre, but is self aware enough to play with them; in droll voice-over (a weakness of the film), Easy comments on being neck deep in what seems like an overblown fantasy, with gumshoes and girls in blue dresses and meetings with the richest man in town. One victory of the film is that it possesses many genre conventions, but attacks them from another angle; Easy isn’t a Phillip Marlowe or Sam Spade, he isn’t cynical or smooth or hardened to the world around him. He is a regular guy who finds his way into this seedy world by accident, and wants more than anything to survive his nightmare and make it back to the two bedroom bungalow he loves so much.
Not that Spade or Marlowe necessarily sought out their adventures, but part of their fulfillment and mythos came from the ability to conquer them. With Easy, there is no mythos–he survives his story not through bravado or wit or sarcasm, but through determination and resourcefulness. At the end of the day, he is a regular guy trying this best to make it through a terrible ordeal.
Race plays an interesting role in framing this story. Noir is, more often than not, a genre facing off whites against whites. Incorporating a black hero into this framework is an inspired move. Easy has not only the forces of the plot weighing down on him, but forces of institutional oppression as well, making it doubly hard to complete his task. When poverty is thrown into the equation, his task is complicated even more; the film is based on a novel by Walter Mosley, whose The Man in My Basement also set up a black hero made desperate by his financial situation which leaves him at the mercy of the rich whites around him. Mosley is keenly perceptive to frame his stories in this way; as the film progresses Easy is constantly being given money by many parties who want his services. As his nightmare deepens, he only benefits economically. He may be able to afford his bungalow, but he’ll have to travel deeper and deeper into hell in order to return to it.
All of this is fed through a Washington performance that rivals the most complex he has ever given; with racism, a sense of personal honor, economic desperation, and violent aggression all within the field of play, Washington modulates the character with skill and believability. While private eye heroes often feel heightened, Easy is as close to the ground as you can get. One victory of the performance is in its consistency: there is never a moment that feels out of step with what Easy has done before, and Washington manages to weave this complex journey into a whole that makes total sense at the end. The film hinges on the quality of his work, and he delivers.
That isn’t to say that Franklin, who directed Washington again on Out of Time, doesn’t deliver as well. Handling noir can’t be easy, and Franklin isn’t self-conscious about the genre’s conventions: the names, the costumes, the locations, the lighting all feel like they could have popped up in a movie by Howard Hawks or John Huston. But he makes his own choices as well–situating the film largely in the black community, we see dingy bungalows, apartment courts, juke joints that feel lived in and authentic, not as if the set dresser had just gotten done with them the second before the camera rolled.
The supporting cast is well chosen by Franklin, as well. Tom Sizemore, always such a great character presence, is formidable as Albright, a sociopath who is just as capable of amiable conversation as he is cutting an eye out of Easy’s head. Jennifer Beals, next to Washington, has the toughest role; carrying the influence of sultry, smokey voiced dames of films past on her back, she creates a character who is both stylish and sympathetic. And Don Cheadle, now a stellar leading man, is a lot of fun as Mouse, a guy for whom random violence is second nature; an encounter with an unresponsive witness leads Mouse to the logical conclusion of shooting the guy in the arm as a means of getting answers.
Ultimately, Devil is a victory for Washington. It shows the complexity and range that he is capable of and his ability to move beyond the limitations of his screen persona. It is the type of movie that I wish he would attempt to get made again. I’m not sure what happened after Training Day, but it seemed like there was a pressure to adapt into a certain type of leading man. I wish that leading man would go away and we could see some more interesting choices.