December 24, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

Denzel Washington has played a doctor, a lawyer, a submarine officer — any number of authoritative figures; nobody does commanding reserve better. But Washington excels as men in physical or spiritual bondage. All three of his Oscar-nominated roles — in 1987’s Cry Freedom, 1989’s Glory (a Best Supporting Actor victory), and 1992’s Malcolm X—cast him as oppressed rebels, men whose bodies were restrained but whose minds remained free. That description also applies to Washington’s pair of powerful performances this year, as quadriplegic forensics expert Lincoln Rhyme in The Bone Collector (an otherwise run-of-the-mill thriller if not for the heat he generates) and unjustly incarcerated boxer Rubin Carter in The Hurricane (opening in select cities Dec. 29). ”Denzel has command of his instrument, which is his body,” says Collector director Phillip Noyce. ”And he can play it like a violin.”

To prepare for the role of the bedridden Rhyme, he met with dozens of paralyzed people, ranging from a construction worker to Christopher Reeve. (”We basically just talked about what movies he’s going to direct,” recalls Washington. ”Which is how it oughta be.”) But while research may grease the wheels, a virtuoso turn runs on divine spark. In the movie’s two hours, Washington hardly moves a muscle, and yet he manages to turn Rhyme into both action hero and sex symbol: The scene in which costar Angelina Jolie (as his police protegee) lovingly strokes one of Washington’s fingers — his sole sentient appendage — stands as one of the year’s most quietly erotic screen moments. Without him, some of Collector‘s more far-fetched plot twists (of which there are a few) might have received a less-welcoming response. ”In one scene we had him off screen asking Angelina to cut off the hands of a female murder victim,” says Noyce. ”For two test screenings we had sniggers in the audience — unease. So I asked the editor to put Denzel on screen — dead silence. His authority made it okay.”

In striking contrast, Washington takes on an intensely physical part in The Hurricane, as the fighter made famous by Bob Dylan’s cause celebre ballad of the same name. For more than a year prior to production, Washington spent up to nine hours a day in the gym, dropping 44 pounds and achieving a brutally lean and sculpted physique: He looks like a boxer. ”I figured it was the last chance for me to play an athlete other than a chess player,” says the actor, who turns 45 on Dec. 28. Adds director Norman Jewison, who first worked with Washington on 1984’s A Soldier’s Story, ”When we were taking photographs in the ring, I said, ‘Denzel, you’d better get some good shots, because you’re never going to look like this again.”’

Carter may have been a middleweight, but Washington’s Hurricane performance should make him a heavyweight Oscar contender. He convincingly ages from his 20s to his 50s (”I’ve been blessed with good genes,” he says of his age-defying looks), and delivers several soul-draining soliloquies. But it’s only when you consider his work in both films that you appreciate the guy’s astounding range. ”When I got these two roles, I went, ‘Man, there’s a real good opportunity here,”’ Washington says. ”What a one-two punch for an actor to go from a quadriplegic to a boxer.” In both cases, he scored a knockout.

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