In a black leather jacket, with flamboyant jewelry that includes a big platinum-and-diamond crucifix, Detective Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington) looks like a modern version of a Medici prince, or Suge Knight. He's the Machiavellian figure in the intermittently successful police drama ''Training Day.''
Alonzo is the worst example a young officer could ever have to learn from, and he is the teacher to Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke), who has just been assigned to undercover duties. Alonzo takes up space with his nihilistic magnificence, and Mr. Washington demonstrates every trick of one-upmanship that an actor could employ. It's as if he's out to pay back every back-seat turn he's had to endure in the movie business.
Jake isn't some dewy-eyed virgin, but he is appalled by the muscular condescension that Alonzo exercises. In their first meeting at a coffee shop, Alonzo turns the introductory pep talk into a shell game; essentially what he says is that you can't believe anybody. Jake, blinking below the deepening furrow in his forehead, follows his new mentor out into the Los Angeles sun. Moments after they climb into Alonzo's ride -- a lacquered black 1977 Monte Carlo that is so much the latest in street-styling that it could be right out of a music video with Nelly -- the older cop forces the younger one to smoke a joint laced with angel dust. And ''Training Day'' becomes Jake's trip through the looking glass.
The film follows Alonzo and Jake through random street incidents that spell out Alonzo's underhandedness and Jake's increasing puzzlement, leading to Jake's discovery of a conspiracy of dirty cops championed by Alonzo. Jake is awakened by what seems to be Alonzo's bad older-brother behavior that actually turns out to be something darker -- the M.O. of a schemer seizing every opportunity to gain the upper hand. And in this buddy cop marriage gone wrong, Mr. Hawke plays shock and disgust so well it is almost as if his Jake is having a real-life chemical reaction to Alonzo's bullying perfidy. Each dialogue exchange is like a knife fight, and by the end Jake's exhaustion at having to constantly protect himself is apparent.
After the first hour, ''Training Day'' loses much of its ability to shock. That's because, despite the novelty of Alonzo's middle-age lust and Jake's mature adolescence, the layering of coincidences that have to pay off start coming into view. When the picture dwells on dueling ambitions -- Jake striving for permanent assignment to undercover work and Alonzo's constant conning of his rookie partner -- you lean in to listen. ''Training Day'' needs to be more about that conflict; it would be interesting to see Jake react to Alonzo's wanton mistreatment of people of color on the streets, which translates into a new, up-to-the-minute definition of black-on-black crime. ''Training Day,'' with its ninth-circle-of-Hell bad-cop conspiracy, owes us a lot more, especially in light of the wholesale corruption in the Los Angeles Police Department that we've seen in the news.
The director, Antoine Fuqua, lies back and relies on his actors for the first time. His previous work, ''Bait'' and ''The Replacement Killers,'' was so busy it seemed as if he needed to tart things up to patch all the holes in the plots. And the actors here provide the few amusing spots when the picture starts to flag: for example, Scott Glenn in his rotting-from-the-inside-out role as Alonzo's old running buddy, and Macy Gray with her squawk-box voice and malign toddle. (Her head seems bigger than the Afro she wears on her CD covers -- all the better for her appraising stares at Mr. Hawke.)
But eventually ''Training Day'' becomes a glib potboiler torn from today's screaming headlines. By the time the movie grinds to an end, with the Russian Mafia beginning a ground assault that wouldn't be out of place in HBO's ''Band of Brothers,'' you may have given up hope. This film didn't need a retribution out of Joel Silver movies like the ''Lethal Weapon'' series.
What makes ''Training Day'' notable is Mr. Washington's performance. His portrayal is a parody of movie star misbehavior. Alonzo knows exactly how large he looms in the world and can puff himself up to blot out the sun. He smiles, cajoles and threatens all in the same sentence, and Mr. Washington can use even his smile as a weapon. He seldom smiles much in his performances, though; the characters he plays are rarely satisfied with themselves enough to let happiness peek through more than occasionally.
And he hasn't been this relaxed on screen since his debut in the dented social comedy ''Carbon Copy,'' playing the illegitimate son of a white businessman (George Segal) who has caught up with his acquisitive, benignly racist father to teach him a lesson. The world was already bored with this lesson by 1981, when ''Carbon Copy'' was released, but Mr. Washington had a jauntiness that was simultaneously brooding and loose-limbed. It was one of the few times he got to play outright comedy. In ''Training Day,'' he jumps at the chance to get jaw-dropping laughs out of many of Alonzo's lines.
Even when Mr. Washington plays a decent guy, like the hard-working lawyer in ''Philadelphia'' who has to be stunned out of his homophobia, there is a core of volatility. His Malcolm X was the performance of a career; he compensated for his lack of physical resemblance to the Black Muslim leader by summoning a high-voltage commitment to shaking things up.
As an actor, Mr. Washington is often about fiery rhetoric. This performance style can come off as the powder-keg flash of a villain. He portrays too many contradictory elements, which may be a danger for audiences looking for more conventional, simplistic and decent performances for black actors in leading roles -- especially the Oscar-voting crowd. (It is as if a black man isn't allowed to use irony in a performance, the same distancing device Kevin Spacey used to ride ''American Beauty'' to an Oscar: commenting on the role while playing it.)
In a movie like ''The Hurricane,'' in which Mr. Washington burned himself down to sheer will, he was having too good a time as the boxer Rubin Carter in his early years, before he sought vindication for a murder charge from behind bars. (''Hurricane'' was a flawed movie, but if we penalized films for a lack of historical truth, ''Titanic'' would have played to empty houses.)
In ''Training Day,'' Mr. Washington's dry-ice grandeur -- the predator's reflexes contrasting with a pensive mouth -- deserves regard, and his powerhouse virtuosity will almost guarantee him an Oscar nomination. He and Mr. Fuqua want to use ''Training Day'' to serve notice that they're ready for something new. Maybe they'll get it the next time around.
''Training Day'' is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian) for the kind of strong language, drug use, sexual situations and violence -- including an attempted rape -- often seen in cautionary tales.
Directed by Antoine Fuqua; written by David Ayer; director of photography, Mauro Fiore; edited by Conrad Buff; music by Mark Mancina; production designer, Naomi Shohan; produced by Jeffrey Silver and Bobby Newmeyer; released by Warner Brothers Pictures. Running time: 120 minutes. This film is rated R.
WITH: Denzel Washington (Alonzo Harris), Ethan Hawke (Jake Hoyt), Scott Glenn (Roger), Macy Gray (Sandman's Wife), Tom Berenger (Stan), Cliff Curtis (Smiley), Dr. Dre (Paul) and Snoop Dogg (Sammy).
To protect the sheep you gotta catch the wolf, and it takes a wolf to catch a wolf.
– Det. Alonzo Harris
No fun when the rabbit has the gun, is it?
– Jake Hoyt
Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day is a spectacular and dingy tale of morality overflowing with great acting, wonderful pacing, and themes that are simultaneously prescient and timeless. The film resonates louder and louder with each instance of police violence across the nation, as those in power bend their institutions to subdue those in their communities. At the same time, the film deals with ambition, the length that “heroes” will or should go to do “good” things, and the standard “the ends justify the means” discussion, but in a more urban and realistic setting. When the events of the film come to a climax and Officer Hoyt draws a firm line, his new worldview clashes directly with Alonzo’s, and there is simply no room for quarter.
Training Day features a plot that appears fairly straightforward on the surface, but actually has subtleties bubbling up from start to finish. Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) is the newbie detective on a narco beat, and Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington) is the streetwise mentor who can open all the doors for Hoyt. The two are narcotics officers, and go through a day on the streets of LA doing their investigations. Along the way, a more nuanced collection of hidden plot elements emerge in a hyper-realistic kind of film noir, with the audience uncovering more and more details at the same pace as Jake. There is also a fantastic false climax in the film, which serves to trick the audience into thinking that the story is near its end, but careful consideration of the sequence of events allows you to see precisely what is going to happen.
The character of Alonzo Harris is a fascinating and seductive test case on just how far we should be willing to allow a so-called “dirty” cop to go. He has street-smarts aplenty, a great intelligence, and connections from the street level up to federal judges. By casting him as the mentor and confidant to Jake, he is meant to be revered throughout the film. He is a master manipulator, and through his career has managed to inch the line of what he is willing to do forward so many times that now he is as evil as those he pursues. But it is only by small steps that we recognize him as the villain. Even up until the very moment we understand the depths of his betrayal, some in the audience may still feel as though his way is the right way. Denzel Washington is able to imbue Alonzo with a sense of pragmatism, arrogance, and wild unpredictability; indeed, he is nearly a force of nature. Still, hints are dropped throughout the film that his methods are ultimately to be proven wrong, as Jake is able to succeed through his own methods.
By stark contrast, Jake Hoyt is primarily good, but he allows his blind ambition to compromise his values at every turn. This is his primary contradiction – he implicitly accepts that his ideals can be abandoned if it guarantees his advancement. Because then, he can apply his ideals responsibly. He fails to realize that once relegated to mere bargaining chips, ideals aren’t worth much at all. Like Jake, we all want to make our dreams come true, but sometimes we realize all too late that the price has climbed too high, until we wonder if the cost can be justified at all. In Jake’s case, it literally takes him staring down the barrel of a gun before he realizes that serving this ambition could cost him his life – if not immediately, then eventually. From this galvanizing moment, we see a more-determined and explicitly moral Jake. He has learned his place in the world and the consequences of trading away integrity for advantage. He is going to take down Alonzo; no more half measures.
The climax of the film directly pits these two wonderful, full-fledged character arcs against each other. Alonzo is the haughty mastermind who begins to understand the significance of his own failings, and must scramble to avoid scattering all his ill-gotten gain. Hoyt is the exact opposite: a young up-and-comer who is challenged to abandon his own ideals in favor of a more pragmatic worldview. When he recognizes the folly of this path, he is instantly beset against Alonzo (the attempted murder certainly didn’t help). In a particularly genius turn, we recognize at the conclusion of the story that these two men have always been polar opposites, but Alonzo was able to convince Jake that his path was the righteous one. Hence, the narrative structure of the film perfectly dictates the conflict and suggests the thematic nature as well.
Just as the narrative appears to be a simple mentor/trainee relationship, the themes apparently deal with the abuse of police power. As we discover the intricacy in Alonzo’s scheme to pay off the bounty on his head, we similarly begin to understand the thematic nature of his conflict with Jake. Indeed, Jake was always beset against Alonzo, and they are always bashing heads against each other in strict narrative terms. But they are fundamentally different characters with contrary defining characteristics: Alonzo is the practiced pragmatist, and Jake the idealist. The genius of Training Day is in how it unifies all of these aspects in a single climactic sequence. Plot tensions settle, the characters clash and resolve, and the accompanying themes are compared – with Jake’s principled idealism declared victorious.
Training Day is often considered a standard dirty-cop movie, but this is superficial analysis. Fuqua, with considerable help from Ethan Hawke and Denzel Washington, has crafted a modern-day morality tale that successfully unifies plot, character, and theme towards a single grand vision: a denunciation of pragmatism, especially in regards to the abuse of legal power. As practically every week offers a new horrifying example of the dangers of Alonzo’s approach to law enforcement, Training Day becomes more and more prophetic – and for championing Jake’s morality of principled action, more and more vital.
Published by Derek Jacobs
I am a molecular biologist who loves movies and wants to think about them and discuss them from the perspective of romantic realism, a reason-based school of aesthetics championed by novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand. View all posts by Derek Jacobs
Classic Review, Film Reviews
Antoine Fuqua, Character, Crime, Denzel Washington, Drama, Ethan Hawke, Idealism, Morality, Plot, Police Violence, Pragmatism, Theme