The day LAPD officer Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) gets to try out for a place in the narcotics division, sometime in mid-morning, while he is still innocent and naive, he spots a pair of thugs attacking a young girl in an alley. Leaping from a moving car, Jake tears down the alley and somehow manages singlehandedly to subdue the two attempted rapists. When he looks up, there, watching him and making no move to help, is his trainer, Lieut. Det. Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington), bad cop to end all bad cops.
Alonzo has no interest in booking the perps. Narc cops, he says, have bigger fish to fry. Then, while Jake watches with a mixture of horrified disbelief and impotent fury, Alonzo sends the girl off to school, picks up one of the thugs who has insulted him, and, with brutal efficiency, reduces the man to a sobbing, cowering lump of flesh before turning and striding matter-of-factly from the alley.
At that moment, just when your revulsion is at its height, the other thug sits up and flings such defiant obscenities at Jake that suddenly a part of you almost wants Jake, if not Alonzo, to forcibly and savagely shut his mouth for him.
Back in the car, Alonzo chews out Jake for wasting their time on such a trivial matter, citing his own impressive arrest record as proof of the effectiveness of his methods. Then he adds unexpectedly, "Never mind what I said, you did good back there."
Training Day is seductive that way. Alonzo may (or may not) be a monster; but if he is, he’s a hypnotically charismatic monster. Actually, it’s hard to know just what he is. Alonzo’s philosophy seems straightforward enough: "To protect the sheep, you’ve got to catch the wolf, and it takes a wolf to catch a wolf." But his actions are frighteningly unpredictable, making it all but impossible for Jake to figure out what kind of wolf (or mad dog?) he may be dealing with.
Driving this movie machine is a performance of startling power and fearful energy from Oscar-winner Denzel Washington. Washington, who is associated, like Sidney Poitier, with righteous roles, has said that it was while he was playing Walter Mosley’s noir hero Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins in 1995’s Devil in a Blue Dress that he looked at costar Don Cheadle, playing the killer "Mouse," and realized that Cheadle had the juicier role. Ever since then, Washington said, he’s wanted to play a bad guy.
In Training Day Washington strides across the screen with all the explosive force of a man slaking a six-year craving. It’s a riveting performance, if an exaggerated one. Washington makes Alonzo Harris into something like a force of nature, implacable, volatile, chaotic, mesmerizing. Wolf or mad dog, he’s clearly the alpha male in every scene, in every room, on every street, in every situation.
Chillingly cold-blooded whether pointing a gun at someone’s head or simply throwing off jaded observations about the world according to Alonzo, he’s never more frightening than when for a brief instant his humanity appears, as it does in one of the film’s rare quiet moments, when he sits staring in silent contemplation at a young boy who lives at the end of a dead-end street with his single mother, and has eyes just like Denzel Washington.
Ably holding up his end is Ethan Hawke, who has the thankless task of having to be almost constantly off-balance without getting blown off the screen. In the interplay between the two, the film invokes (though it doesn’t work through) serious questions about what is necessary to survive and be effective as an undercover narcotics cop on the street.
At least, it does for the first half of the picture. After that Training Day abruptly shifts gears, switching from character-driven issue-oriented thriller to formula action-driven cop flick. Suddenly, there’s a plot, not just a conflict; an undisputed hero and villain, not moral questioning; a battle of bodies, not of wits and wills; a tidy moralistic conclusion, not a serious consideration of issues.
It’s still well-done formula action, and it kept me guessing what would happen next. But there were some glaring plausibility gaps, including a comic-book stunt that Jackie Chan might have balked at and a hugely convenient coincidence that only Dickens’ mother could love. Beyond that, it’s disappointing to see what could have been a somewhat thoughtful social commentary — not to mention perhaps the strongest performance of Washington’s career — reduced to the level of a Lethal Weapon sequel.
The downsizing of the film’s ambitions makes it harder, too, to stomach the brutal violence and amoralism. It’s a fundamental principle of good drama that the more unpleasantness the audience is subjected to, the more worthwhile the work ultimately has an obligation to be. A morally serious film about war or the Holocaust can legitimately require its audience to endure a great deal; a mere mindless entertainment must not make similar demands of its audience. For me at least, the ratio was off in Training Day.
There are other moral problems as well. Despite the crime-doesn’t-pay moral of the climax, Training Day is so much Washington’s film that Alonzo, not Jake, is the de facto hero. Although Hawke manages to hold his own against Washington, Alonzo overwhelms Jake as effortlessly as Hannibal Lecter overwhelmed Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs — the difference in that film being that Lecter had only twenty minutes or so of screen time and Starling was the true focal point of the story. Likewise, gangster Jimmy Cagney upstaged Pat O’Brien’s streetwise priest in Angels with Dirty Faces, but there at least some attempt was made to redeem Cagney’s character.
In the end, what many people take away from Training Day will be how good Denzel looked in designer leather and gold chains busting heads and shooting guns and getting it on with the woman who bore his illegitimate child. Washington’s knockout performance is the main reason to see Training Day. It may also be the crux of the film’s moral difficulty.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.