For those of you who thought Denzel Washington was a slumming softie with semi-passable stuff like Remember the Titans, Training Day should restore some faith in his abilities. The timing of this film, with its negative portrayal of police officers and violent content, is a bit unfortunate. But the presence of Washington and Ethan Hawke, both in incredible form, make it very worthwhile.
As Alonzo, one of the nastiest, dirtiest villains to ever make his way onto movie screens, Washington gives his best performance since Malcolm X. An LAPD narcotics officer who has strayed from his original mission to protect and serve, Alonzo provides Washington with the opportunity to jettison his good-guy image and portray an absolutely disgusting character. He’s very much up to the task of playing a miserable bastard.
Looking to find a better life and a bigger salary for his small family, Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) shows up for his first day as a narcotics trainee, eager to succeed and basically do whatever his superior officer, Alonzo, requests. It doesn’t take long before Alonzo starts employing some rather unorthodox training methods, as he forces Jake to smoke marijuana laced with a surprise.
While under the influence, Jake participates in the beating of rape suspects, a visit to one of Alonzo’s crooked colleagues (Scott Glenn, in an impressive small role) and the meeting of a strange coven of higher-up officers who are just as corrupt as Alonzo. The drugs in Jake’s system are a nice touch by director Antoine Fuqua, who believably depicts Jake’s haze, a haze that perhaps weakens his resolve for law-abiding procedure and allows him to become more of a puppet for Alonzo’s evil intentions.
Quite a lot happens in the one day this film depicts, and the movie’s realism is something that is up for debate. Things get progressively farfetched as the film plays out, and while the movie achieves a gritty realism in its depiction of Los Angeles and police work in its first half, it eventually becomes a glorified passion play—a somewhat unrealistic depiction of good vs. evil punctuated by a finale that isn’t as strong as the film that precedes it.
While the slight misstep of the ending might keep Training Day from classic status, it doesn’t keep the film from being a powerhouse piece of entertainment. Washington erupts with a ferocity on screen that actually had me concerned for his cardiovascular system. While Alonzo’s rages are a mighty thing to behold, Washington balances those moments with quiet, slick sadism that is equally disturbing.
Actually matching Washington’s brilliance is, of all people, Ethan Hawke. Hawke portrays Jake’s struggle between following the leader and maintaining his value systems so convincingly, it’s hard to remember a time when he stunk up the place as an actor. (Oh … I hated him so much in Reality Bites.) With this film, and a recent streak of good ones including Gattaca and Hamlet, Hawke has completed an impressive comeback and maturation.
Scott Glenn isn’t alone in the impressive smaller role department. The film is full of great cameos, including a superb one-scene turn for Snoop Dogg (a damn good actor) as a wheelchair-bound crack dealer. Also showing up are Dr. Dre as another corrupt and rather angry cop, and Macy Gray (tremendously good) as a South Central resident who Alonzo harasses. One might have expected the appearance of numerous hip-hop stars to be distracting, but the trio blends into the action beautifully.
Expect Oscar buzz for Washington, and if the film were a bit more credible and realistic, buzz for supporting actor Hawke would not have been a surprise. As it stands, Training Day is one of the year’s best action pictures, with a main character that qualifies as a true monster.