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Denzel Washington braves a new world in 'The Book of Eli'

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In "The Book of Eli," Denzel Washington plays a man who roams a charred Earth that was first hit by a meteor then devastated by war. Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

For some pretty obvious reasons - including their best actor Oscars - Denzel Washington has long been compared to the venerable Sidney Poitier. But back when Poitier was coming to dinner, he wasn't getting there by trudging through a post-apocalyptic, "Mad Max" landscape, carrying the fate of mankind on his shoulders and lopping limbs off bad guys with a big old chef's knife. So any comparisons are probably over.

No, Washington has made his very own and pretty indelible presence in our movie culture, but it's safe to say that when "The Book of Eli" opens Friday, Jan. 15, it will introduce fans to a new Denzel - one who has joined the sci-fi fantasy posse currently invading movie theaters galaxy-wide and promises to ignite a Washingtonian debate.

"Is Denzel chasing Will Smith's action-hero status and pretend street credibility?" asks critic Armond White. "Is this an 'I Am Legend' contest? Terrence Howard and Jeffrey Wright have nothing to be afraid of."

Maybe not, but one can see why Washington might want to chart a new course through the continually heaving landscape of the movie business. With few exceptions ("The Great Debaters" of 2007, for instance), his movies have always made money - but a very static kind of money. Over the past decade, the thrillers in which Washington has specialized have been remarkably consistent earners - "Training Day" ($77 million domestic; $105 million worldwide); "John Q." ($77 million; $102 million), "Man on Fire" ($78 million; $130 million); "The Manchurian Candidate" ($66 million; $96 million); "Inside Man" ($88 million; $104 million); "Déjà Vu" ($64 million; $180 million); and last year's "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3" ($66 million; $150 million).

But Washington has been the victim of some nasty facts of life: The movies that have made major money - like "American Gangster" ($130 million domestic; $266 million worldwide) - have paired him with another (white) star, and it's made a big difference, even if his paler sidekick has been Russell Crowe (or, in "Pelham," John Travolta). The black American movie has traditionally not sold well overseas, and global sales are a major motivator in what studios are choosing to make. Add to this that Washington has not, for some time, made himself politically or artistically important - there's been no "Philadelphia" (1992), no "Malcolm X" (1993), not even "The Siege" (1998), with its prescient paranoia about radical Islam. So why not take a trip into the future?

A Western of sorts

Directed by brothers Allen and Albert Hughes ("Menace II Society," "From Hell"), "The Book of Eli" is, in a sense, a Western: The title character, the classic lone wolf, travels the scorched world of 2043 carrying a book in which the salvation of mankind is enclosed; the conflict arises when the book is seized by the mayor of a makeshift frontier town (Gary Oldman).

If it sounds a bit like something by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood, Allen Hughes will not disabuse you.

"It was an Eastwood-esque role," he agreed, by phone from Los Angeles. "Shaolin monk meets Sitting Bull meets Moses meets Bruce Lee. And Denzel was the first choice in my mind. He was the guy."

Hughes, who hasn't directed a movie with his brother since the Jack the Ripper movie "From Hell," said since that Johnny Depp vehicle opened in 2001, he and Albert have had five or six projects they were deeply interested in doing, but that, for one reason or another, never got made.

"One we were very passionate about - and which got made because a movie star made it - was 'Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,' " he said, referring to George Clooney's directorial debut. "We had a strong vision for it, but at the time the politics of it weren't right. It was a movie we were perfect for, something that was original, but it just didn't happen."

Having Washington on board, he said, made a huge difference with "The Book of Eli." Not all the difference, but a difference.

"Denzel was a major factor in getting it made, but even when we got him, there were more hurdles. He was very helpful because, obviously, he's a great actor, a two-time Academy Award winner, a movie star, but there were still politics, and he had to get involved as a producer, and if he hadn't, the movie wouldn't have gotten made because it's not something that's in Denzel's normal wheelhouse."

Out of his comfort zone

Given that scenario - a major star leaving his comfort zone - Hughes said the studios "will come up with 6 million excuses why they shouldn't do it."

But the change of tempo - in both an artistic and professional sense - may prove to be a boon for Washington, a star of considerable luminosity that probably needs to be refocused.

"You want a guy with that luggage," said Hughes about casting "The Book of Eli." "You want a guy with the nobility Denzel has - he's done Oscar-winning work for 20, 30 years, and he has a presence that harkens back to the great actors of old, guys who didn't have to say much but could walk onto the screen and consume the screen with their presence and their manhood."

That, Allen Hughes said, was what he wanted out of Washington. "This role requires him not to talk a lot, which is something he's very good at doing," he said. "In 'Training Day,' he's running his mouth 60 miles an hour and you're right there with him the whole time. So I was interested in taking that guy - and there's only one Denzel - and stripping it down, not having him say much."

And rewriting the book of Denzel Washington.

DENZEL WASHINGTON AND HIS GLORY DAYS

Washington's career has seemed varied, yet predictable - thrillers, social dramas and biopics seem to arrive in comfortable succession - but he also has had far too many films for any easy assessment. The following, however, are the projects that got him where he is:

'ST. ELSEWHERE' (1982-88) - The prognosis was decidedly positive for Washington after he played Dr. Philip Chandler in this gritty, cult-fave NBC series about a decaying teaching hospital in Boston's South End. When Washington checked out, he entered superstardom.

'GLORY' (1989) - Ed Zwick's Civil War drama about the all-black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry helped Washington become the first black actor to earn two best supporting actor nominations (the other was for "Cry Freedom"). He then followed Louis Gossett Jr. as only the second African-American to win in that category.

'MALCOLM X' (1992) - Washington's fierce performance (his best?) was a bit too fierce for the academy, which gave him a nomination but bestowed the award on Al Pacino (for "Scent of a Woman," go figure). His portrayal of the black nationalist martyr cemented his longtime partnership with Spike Lee, the director who seems to bring out his best.

'PHILADELPHIA' (1993) - Tom Hanks may have won the best actor Oscar, but wasn't this really Washington's movie? His performance as homophobic lawyer Joe Miller was the engine of the film.

'TRAINING DAY' (2001) - Anyone find it ironic that Washington had to play an out-and-out bad guy to finally win his best actor Oscar? And for a movie in which he was arguably a supporting player? Whatever: He was mad, bad and dangerous as the gloriously corrupt Alonzo Harris.

'INSIDE MAN' (2006) - Washington's fourth collaboration with director Lee (this year's "Inside Man 2" will be the fifth), this cat-and-mouse hostage drama played to all the actor's strongest suits - he was sexy, he was smart, he was funny and he owned the screen.

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