Denzel Washington is known for his acting range and his ability to morph into his roles, regardless of whether he’s playing a corrupt cop, a lone apocalyptic survivor, or a beleaguered father whose emotional callousness speaks to the realities of generational trauma. He’s truly an actor whose tier remains unmatched by most, but he wasn’t always the major box-office draw he is now. Films like Fallen, while lining the margins of Denzel’s impressive filmography, have slipped through the cracks — perhaps too easily.
One of the reasons why 1998’s Fallen remains underrated is because its main star isn’t fighting the Russian mafia or trying to remind high school football players that the Titans were better than gods. Instead, in Fallen, Washington’s character is fighting an inhuman threat, an enemy that’s basically intangible and largely incomprehensible. For those who watched the film, we’ll discuss why Fallen still has time on its side (pun intended), and for those who haven’t, our discussion will outline the film’s importance in modern cinematography.
Fallen, released in 1998, remains a criminally underrated classic, despite its fantastic cast of actors, relatively good screenplay, and visually stunning cinematography. Unfortunately, it was a box office failure; it received mixed reviews upon its initial release. It didn’t perform well commercially, thus failing to gain the recognition it deserved, perhaps due to its somewhat unconventional storyline.
The narrative follows detective John Hobbes, portrayed by Denzel Washington, who’s tasked with tracking down a serial killer known as the Fallen. As the case progresses, Hobbes actually discovers that the murderer isn’t human at all, but Azazel, a fallen angel cast out of Heaven—considered responsible for introducing humans to forbidden knowledge in the book of Genesis. The movie then becomes a cat-and-mouse chase, with Hobbes trying to capture the angel and put an end to all the killings.
It’s a really well-developed narrative, offering a unique blend of crime thriller and supernatural horror with a pinch of existential drama. Even religious themes and concepts of angels and demons are used in a fresh and original way. The 1990s had their fair share of biblically themed horror and thriller films. Interestingly, most of them, like 1995’s Prophecy (starring Christopher Walken), 1999’s Stigmata, and 1999’s End of Days, received mixed reviews at best.
However, Fallen is actually the only one among the aforementioned titles to gain a bigger cult following, mostly because it used the biblical themes freshly and originally, avoiding the cliches often associated with similar narratives, such as confusing plots, cheap scares, and over-the-top special effects (at least for that time). The well-written screenplay, paired with sharp dialogue and breakneck-paced story progression of the film, is further complemented by its visual style.
The cinematography is a true feast for the eyes, as it captures the film’s dark and moody atmosphere. The special effects are top-notch for the time and not overdone; in fact the portrayal of Azazel is both creepy and believable. The entire arrangement is accompanied by a score of haunting and melancholic music, which further complements the film’s overall mood and tone.
With everything said, Denzel Washington’s performance as Hobbes is actually the film’s brightest point. He brings depth and nuance to the character, making him more than just a stereotypical movie detective. Hobbes is a man struggling with his own beliefs and the weight of his job, and Washington conveys those traits through his subtle and powerful acting. His performance gives Fallen a sense of gravity and weight that’s often lacking in other supernatural thrillers.
But that’s not all. The critics praised Washington’s performance, and his portrayal of a strong, complex, and intelligent character challenged the stereotypical depictions of African Americans in Hollywood. Before the turn of the century, there were relatively few Hollywood films with African American leads; the representation of Black people in the movie industry was limited, and they were often portrayed in stereotypical roles or as supporting characters.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, followed by the Black Power movement of the ’70s, brought attention to the need for greater representation of Black people in media, including in films. However, it wasn’t until the ’70s and ’80s that Hollywood started producing more films with African American leads, but their number was still relatively limited compared to today. Spike Lee’s Malcolm X from 1992 — a true masterpiece starring Washington and Angela Bassett — is a notable exception from the ’90s era.
Additionally, Denzel’s acting prowess and portrayal of complex and intelligent characters showed that Black actors could portray deep characters who were more than over-accentuated stereotypes. His portrayal of Hobbes additionally challenged the often-negative depictions of African Americans in law enforcement, removing the barriers and paving the way for future Black actors in Hollywood.
Besides Washington, Fallen also has a talented supporting cast, including John Goodman, Donald Sutherland, and James Gandolfini — all of which gave standout performances, adding their own unique flavor to this cinematic release. In truth, they elevate the film, turning it into more than just a typical, run-of-the-mill thriller. Yet, despite all of its qualities, Fallen remains a criminally underrated classic that gained a massive cult following and a dedicated fan base.
Perhaps the film’s unconventional storyline and use of biblical themes turned off a chunk of the audience and critics, but most of those who have seen Fallen agree that the film shouldn’t be overlooked. Its great screenplay, captivating performances by its cast, and stunning cinematography make Fallen a classic that definitely deserves more recognition than it actually got. So, for any fans of thriller films out there, Denzel Washington’s Fallen is a film that should be on your must-watch list.