Director: Antoine Fuqua
Cast: Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke, Scott Glenn, Tom Berenger, Harris Yulin, Raymond J. Barry
MPAA Rating: (for strong brutal violence, pervasive language, drug content and brief nudity)
Running Time: 2:00
Release Date: 10/5/01
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Review by Mark Dujsik
Training Day is an intriguing character study trapped within the confines of its own self-imposed cop drama formula. It’s kind of a waste, too, because with the movie we have a strong and atypical performance from Denzel Washington, playing an undercover cop as crooked as they come. I don’t quite understand why screenwriters try to cram their more nuanced or interesting characters into something as conventional as the final act of Training Day. There’s an exact moment in the movie where you feel writer David Ayer simply admitting that he has no idea how to continue the mostly off-beat material he’s established and abandons it completely for a generic climax. But until that point, Training Day is a fascinating look into a single day on the job with a corrupt cop.
The movie follows Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke), an L.A. police officer, who’s decided to transfer into the narcotics division, run by Alonzo Harris (Washington). From the beginning, we can tell there’s something intense about Alonzo. He’s verbally abusive from the beginning, simply because Jake won’t let him read his paper. His office is his car, complete with hydraulics. His street slang rolls off his tongue, obviously from his need to use it. He convinces Jake to test the marijuana they confiscate from two guys who just bought it. He’s on a first-name basis with some of the lowest of the low in his business. Everyone on the street knows he’s a cop, but they also know that as long as you don’t get on his bad side and give him information every now and then, he could help you out—or at least leave you alone. Jake, on the other hand, is straight and narrow. When asked why he wanted to transfer, he tells about wanting to keep drugs off the streets, but Alonzo pushes him to admit that it’s for the promotion. I’d venture that his first answer is pretty honest too.
From this basic character conflict, the movie goes from one situation to another, and we see just how far apart these two men are and maybe how possible it is for Jake to become like Alonzo. The essential difference between the two is that Jake primarily looks out for others while Alonzo primarily looks out for himself. Their philosophies can be seen in the way they handle crime. Jake wants to make arrests—to let justice be served. Alonzo also wants justice to be served, but he feels that most often the scum will eliminate the other scum—"street justice." It’s only the big guys, who also bring along lucrative evidence finds and better chances for promotion, he worries about. Jake serves mainly as the audience’s connection into this world of corruption.
However, I wonder about the casting of Ethan Hawke as that connection. He’s fine here, but perhaps a more charismatic, less quiet choice would have served the movie better. Hawke’s acting choice here is obvious. He keeps understated and subdued, and he does it well. Perhaps the reasoning behind that choice is to make sure we feel the impact of Washington’s performance, but I think Washington would have made as much of an impact had Hawke upped the stakes on his character a bit. The problem with the extreme difference in characterization here is that Washington’s charisma occasionally overshadows his character’s inherent amoral actions. Is this a flaw in Washington’s performance? Not at all; it comes with the territory. I’d venture that director Antoine Fuqua was so blindsided by Washington’s turn that he forgot to think of the problems that result from the downplaying of Hawke’s character. These concerns wouldn’t be a problems at all if the conclusion were less geared toward formula. By the time the finale comes along, it’s cramped itself into needing a good guy and a bad guy. The only problem is that these two characters are too developed to be simply good or bad.
The slow downward spin of the movie begins, as I said before, at a specific place. I won’t give away details, but it starts with a coincidence far too coincidental to believe. At this point the movie stumbles, and it continues to err until its conclusion, never regaining its footing. The movie goes for a message, a very simple and obvious one, but it turns out confused—one character doing something just as bad as the guy he’s trying to stop. Of course, in just watching these two men saying and doing what they believe, there’s something special, and the notion of even needing a message seems irrelevant.
Copyright © 2001 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.