Idealistic, rookie cop Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) is about to face the most important day in his life. He has 24-hours to prove himself worthy of a detective’s shield under the watchful eye and guidance of Detective Sergeant Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington), a 13-year veteran who lives and breathes the streets. Jakes sense of honor and justice is about to be challenged by the experience drug enforcement officer who has developed his own sense of honor and justice in “Training Day.”Robin:
Alonzo establishes his authority as the big dog right from the start when he phones Jake in the wee hours of the rookie’s test day, ordering the younger man to meet him at a certain diner and hanging up as Hoyt begins to thank him for his chance to make detective. From here, Alonzo maintains the upper hand with Jake and forces him to do things that Hoyt knows are downright wrong. Harris continues to challenge the newcomer, showing Jake the real underbelly of the streets as he brings him through places where no white guy, especially an eager young cop, has gone before. Almost from the start of their relationship, Alonzo unabashedly declares that Jake will be his “nigger” if he wants to get ahead.
Denzel Washington is being touted, in some circles as a contender for awards come year’s end. The actor gives a good, not a great, performance in a solid role that is counter to his usual noble, kind persona he normally takes one. His Alonzo Harris is a studied performance with the actor getting down and dirty as a cop whose sense of justice has evolved away from enforcing the written law to honoring what he calls “street justice.” When the naïve Jake makes him pull over to stop the rape of a 14-year-old Catholic schoolgirl, Alonzo kicks the bejeezus out of the perps, steals their money and sets them free, much to the rookie cop’s amazement and chagrin. King Kong, he tells us near the end, ain’t got nothin’ on him as the veteran detective walks a dangerous line. A side story, important in the finale, has Alonzo in deep with the Russian Mafia, further establishing the vet’s walking the dark edges of illegality, though this sidebar seems unnecessary.
Ethan Hawke gives a convincing performance as Jake Hoyt. Jake kissed his wife and baby in the morning and left home a fresh-faced idealist. He returns, a day later, as a battered and bruised cynic, but, for all that, a man transformed into an enlightened, better cop. Alonzo shook Jake’s concepts of “justice” and the younger man comes away with a more intense, realistic understanding of right and wrong. Hawke gives an effective character study to his perf and stands toe-to-toe with the much more flamboyant Washington, whose Alonzo Harris is an unpredictable loose canon who has been, unbeknownst to himself, completely changed, morally, by his constant dealings in the mean streets of LA.
While few members (actually none) of the supporting are given a great deal of screen time, there is a wealth of fine acting in what are, unfortunately, very small rolls. Most notable is Macy Gray as the wife of a drug dealer whose home Alonzo invades on the pretext of looking for drugs but his real agenda is to rip off the merchant of his ill-gotten cash. The newcomer makes a splash as the street-savvy housewife who sees Alonzo for what he is. Snoop Dog is depravedly solid as a wheelchair bound crack peddler that Alonzo forces information from. There are many more tight little perfs given by mostly unknown thesps. For name actors we have Scott Glenn as one of Harris’s victim/criminals and Tom Berenger as one of Alonzo’s equally corrupt colleagues.
The screenplay, by David Ayer (“U-571” and “The Fast and the Furious”), packs an awful lot of gritty activity into what is supposed to be a single day. This throws the pace of the film off as it takes a suspension of disbelief to accept that so much tension, angst, confrontation and violence would happen in just 24-hours. After a day like this, Jake should be ready to retire as Alonzo first coerces him into smoking PCP (jeopardizing Jake’s professional status as a cop), involves him in an unsavory bust that results in cold-blooded murder, drags the rookie into an illegal shakedown and strands him in a life-threatening situation in a place where no inexperienced, young, white cop should ever find himself. I understand the single-day story, but question the amount of action and narrative that is compressed into the limited timeframe. By the end of Jake’s first day at school I felt like I needed a vacation.
Director Antoine Fuqua (“The Replacement Killer”) keeps things tight and moving along at a brisk pace, even when much of the action consists of the two cops driving around with Alonzo pontificating to his latest disciple about the rules of survival on the streets of Los Angeles. Relatively unknown director of photography, Mauro Fiore, provides an active, fluid, moving camera that helps get across the street flavor and danger. He manipulates the normal color palette when Jake smokes PCP for the first time and sees the world in screwed up colors and distorted images. The night shoots are crisp and clear as Jake confronts his demon, Alonzo, to stop his superior’s personal, corrupt plans. Costuming, by Michele Michel, maintains the look of the streets with Alonzo dressed all in black, like an avenger descended upon the city, with his shield hung around his neck like an over-gold gangsta.
The hype preceding “Training Day” makes expectations for the film high. It is, like Washington’s performance, good not great. Hawke gives one of his best perfs to date. I only wish the wonderful supporting cast were given more to do. I give it a B-.
Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke, "Snow Falling on Cedars") has one day to prove to new senior partner Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington) that he has what it takes to be a NARC in his quest to advance to police detective. In 24 hours, Jake will experience the ultimate corruption of a cop who's lost his soul to the environment he originally served and protected in "Training Day."
Director Antoine Fuqua ("The Replacement Killers") takes to the streets of South Central, Watts, Inglewood, and the Imperial Courts housing project to give his film authenticity, but screenwriter David Ayer ("The Fast and the Furious") trots out too much evil to believably comprehend within his dawn to dead-of-night structure. Given that limitation, Denzel Washington gives a performance that glints like steel while Ethan Hawke meets him head-on.
Jake's day begins when Alonzo calls him at home, instructs him to skip roll call and meet him at an inner city breakfast joint. Jake's attempts at small talk are rebuffed as Alonzo immediately challenges the young man to show his mettle. College kids hitting the bad part of town to score pot are shaken down at gun point, relieved of their weed and let go, then Jake's told to smoke the stuff, as a true NARC needs to understand drugs first hand. Jake allows himself to be convinced before he's told that the pot was laced with PCP.
In a move that will prove fortuitous later, Jake single handedly saves a young Latina from rape at the hands of two junkies. Once again, Alonzo delivers street justice, beating the men senseless, but not arresting them. When Alonzo's methods with a wheelchair bound pusher (Snoop Dog) prove effective, Jake begins to come around, but it's short lived. Jake learns that Alonzo's in trouble, having pushed the Russian mob too far by killing one of their own in Las Vegas, and Alonzo's willing to go to any length to pay his debt and remain the street czar of the inner city.
Washington proves here that he's as fine an actor playing compromised evil as he is at the noble, heroic roles he usually takes on. He initially seduces the audience along with Jake, soothingly smoothing over his radical actions with rhetoric like his signature line, 'to protect the sheep you gotta kill the wolf and it takes a wolf to kill the wolf.' But Washington always keeps us unbalanced as well, punctuating his words with an underhanded snicker. Hawke is the real surprise, going toe to toe with Washington while providing our point of view. Hawke makes Jake an idealized young man who toughens up first for the wrong, then the right, reasons as he realizes he must trust his own instinct and principles.
Support is terrific in many small roles too numerous to mention. Macy Gray is a standout as a dragon lady of a dealer's wife reacting to a falsified warrant. Cliff Curtis ("Blow") is the only creditted member of a Latino threesome Alonzo leaves Jake with - ironically the four actors provide the best scene in the film without Washington, although ultimately Ayer leaves them to end the bit on a note that plays too much like a fairy tale.
Director of Photography Mauro Fiore ("Driven") smoothly captures the action, from both within Alonzo's menacing black 1978 Monte Carlo low rider and outside as it glides over the orange-hued, rain slicked streets of sunset. He maintains the tension in the interiors of South Central and the hidden domains of the LAPD's underground. Production designer Naomi Shohan ("American Beauty") maintains a shadow world (even when brightly lit) rooted in reality, which Mark Mancina's ("Speed") score reflects by placing shivery highlights over the ethnic music of the neighborhoods. Fuqua's direction is confident, delivering not just the style seen in his "The Replacement Killers," but the substance of full characterizations as well.
"Training Day" is a good film held back from greatness by the excesses of its script.
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