“You said don’t shoot him, right? Well I didn’t; I choked… Look, Easy, if you ain’t want him dead, why you leave him with me?”
To me, Denzel Washington is one of those dudes who seemingly arrived in the world a fully fledged movie star. In my movie watching lifetime, he’s always just been there and he’s always been awesome. So it’s odd to think there was a once a time when he was up and coming, making his bones and still scratching around for that first lead role, that first big break out.
His first opportunity came with Spike Lee’s Malcolm X in 1992. But that was some prestige, award baiting stuff. He followed it up the following year, co-starring with Tom Hanks in Philadelphia. But in 1995, Denzel the Movie Star burst onto the scene with couple of big ass, big budget, big spectacle blockbusters. He hit with Crimson Tide and he missed with Virtuosity. He also took on something a little more interesting, with the noir-tastic Devil in a Blue Dress.
With possibly the best noir private dick name in the history of noir private dicks, Washington is Easy Rawlins. A returned vet from WWII, he’s settled in Los Angeles where he even owns his own house, no mean feat for a black dude in 40s America. But times are tough, jobs are hard to come by, and Easy is two months late on his mortgage. Desperate for work, Easy is approached by DeWitt (Tom Sizmore), a shady character looked for a missing woman (Jennifer Beals as Daphne Monet) who is thought to be hiding out in LA’s black neighbourhoods. With the offer of a cash on the table, Easy can’t resist.
Looking for Daphne takes Easy down one rabbit hole after another, each seedier and more dangerous than the last. No one is who they claim to be and everyone is connected to Daphne’s disappearance in ways that only create more questions each time one is answered. As things get more and more dangerous, Easy realises he needs some backup, which is when he calls in an old friend, Mouse (Don Cheadle). Mouse is the kind of character who’s introduced holding a gun to someone’s head and gets genuinely disappointed when he’s not allowed to pull the trigger.
Like the recent Inherent Vice, Devil in a Blue Dress is the kind of throwback movie that steers into the skid of its genre’s conventions and embraces them wholeheartedly. The story is complex to the point of convoluted. Characters motivations and intentions are contradicted, flip flopped and revealed over and over and over again until the concept of good guys and bad guys, and black and white, just becomes a big soup of grey ambiguity. All the while, held together by Easy’s convictions and confusion, and Mouse’s general bad assery. Sure, Denzel might be on the poster and have his name above the title, but Cheadle gets the much more flashy, fun and entertaining role.
I’m not sure if the story of Devil in a Blue Dress really works. I got lost very early on and had no desire to work my way back into the story to a point of caring, or even understanding, what was going on. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it. Because the characters of Easy and Mouse are so awesome that I could watch any (or no) story if they’re at the centre of it. And it’s that ability that makes Denzel a great actor and a great movie star.