Training Day (2001): Denzel Washington Shines in Fuqua’s Crime Policier, Co-Starring Ethan Hawke in Top Forme

The essential narrative of Training Day, Antoine Fuqua’s gritty, intense crime policier, is quite familiar from other genre films, but there’s no doubt that it’s his most satisfying and technically accomplished picture to date.

Grade: A (****1/2* out of *****)

Cast as a corrupt cop for the first times in his career, a superlative Denzel Washington, in the most radical departure from his otherwise heroically noble screen image.

He is teamed with a rookie, played by Ethan Hawke (also in top form), who’s mostly known for the yuppie roles he has played in high-profile indies.

World premiere in the Venice Film Festival was greeted with favorable response, which is likely to repeat in Toronto, before Warner’s adrenaline-fueled thriller-actioner scores high with the large public when it goes into wide release in late September.

Set in the morally ambiguous (to say the least) world of undercover police investigation, this blistering Los Angeles-based suspenser posits at its center two characters that could not have been more different when they begin their journey together, an odyssey that will forever change their definition of police work–and their very fates.

When idealistic rookie Jake Hoyt (Hawke) wakes up to his alarm clock at 4:59 am (the film’s very first image), he’s totally unaware of where this most crucial day of his career will take him. Jake has only one day to prove himself to his fiercely charismatic and dominant superior, LAPD detective sergeant Alonzo Harris (Washington), a 13-year vet narcotics officer, who seems to be the perfect trainer. Over the next 24 hours, Jake will be pulled deeper and deeper into the ethical mire and questionable methods of how to execute law and order in America’s new war zone, the inner city, with Los Angeles standing in for every big metropolitan center.

Scripter David Ayer, who grew up in South Central, structures his Faustian morality tale as a war actioner, with the inner city and its potentially explosive face-offs between cops and criminals functioning as a battle field in the same way that the Vietnam war was for American combat soldiers, except that this time the enemy is within. This conception, which shapes the film’s story, benefits immensely from the timeliness of its main issue. More than other cities, over the past decade, L.A. has been rocked by numerous police scandals: accusations that officers in the high-crime, gang-heavy Rampart division engaged in brutality, fabricated evidence and lied in criminal investigation reports, while also stealing money and drugs from their felons, activities that Alonzo executes in the picture with suave and scary manipulation.

The first reel is particularly effective in delineating the vast gap between Alonzo’s and Jake’s approaches to justice. In one long monologue, the senior officer presents his worldview: “You have to decide if you’re a sheep or a wolf, if you want to go to the grave or if you want to go home.” Later on, at a gunpoint, Jake is forced to smoke dope and drink beer in the car, while all along getting useful tips of how to be an efficient fighting cop.

Viewers who have seen crime-policiers will not be surprised to learn that, years back, when Alonzo began his job, he was as naive and idealistic as Jake. But with time and harsh experience on the job, Alonzo’s optimism has been chipped away by his tour of duty in the streets, where fighting by the book can get officers killed. Scripter Ayer does a good job at showing how getting the job done often requires Alonzo (and his peers) to break the very law they’re authorized to enforce.

Training Day unfolds as a road picture, with half a dozen stops along the way, each revealing another shady dimension of Alonzo’s conduct, each escalating the unavoidable conflict between the two cops until it reaches its inevitable, Western movie-like shootout, in which not only their legal perception but their very lives are on the line.

Nonetheless, while the rough and raw reality of the law enforcement mind-set in inner cities is captured vividly, what’s missing is a more subtle and multi-layered treatment of the central characters that come across as types. Hence, Jake is a daisy-fresh rookie from the Valley, who became a cop because he really believed in justice. The narrow conceptional treatment is particularly reflected in the case of Alonzo, who in his radical behavior is sort of a modern version of Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, except that the text doesn’t provide enough background and motivational info of how a cop becomes so corrupt that he not only steals the goods from his felons, but doesn’t hesitate to prestige the killing of a former friend-collaborator (Scott Glenn) in cold blood. Indeed, to make the incident more credible, Alonzo shoots and injures his officers, then rehearses with them the alibi they will later tell their superiors, before getting praised and honored for such criminal conduct.

For a while, Jake goes along for the ride, observing Alonzo’s “routine” operation with a mixture of horror and fascination, but it soon becomes clear that it’s only a matter of time before he takes matter in hand

The yarn takes such an extremist approach that it fails as a serious meditation on the nature and near impossibility of proper law enforcement. Training Day is not likely to arouse intelligent thinking by the viewers of such pertinent questions as: Is there one moral code in fighting crime Which is more important: effective police who get the job done at a price, or police who follow the letter of the law

Inevitable comparisons will be made between Training Day and Abel Ferrara’s King of New York and especially Bad Lieutenant (two of Ferrara’s best movies), though Fuqua doesn’t go for the grand operatic style of the former, nor for the religious redemption of the latter. Considering that a good deal of the action is set within the confines of the car, Fuqua’s direction is taut throughout the picture, with tension threatening to reach the breaking point in at least three or four masterfully-directed scenes.

Ultimately, what elevates the movie above a well executed policier is the splendid acting of the two leads. Like Washington, Hawke takes on his first law-enforcement role, and shows a dimension of his talent not seen in his previous collegiate type of roles (Dead Poets Society, Before Sunrise, Hamlet).

But the movie belongs to Washington, as the highly decorated, seductively decadent Alonzo, a monstrous officer who’s come to believe his own myth. Best known until now for embodying paragons of justice and righteousness (The Hurricane, Remember the Titans, Malcolm X), a sort of a present-day Sidney Poitier, Washington gives a bravura theatrical performance that’s both scary and highly entertaining.

Oscar Prospects:

With some luck and shrewd marketing, Training Day should earn Washington another well-deserved Best Actor Oscar nomination.