Its basic dramatic elements go back further than that, back to Shakespeare’s Macbeth and its antecedents. You know how it works—some antisocial pseudo-Nietzschian Übermench superman-type runs amuck, murdering and generally imposing his will on others until he’s finally undone by his own psychopathologies (often amid a hail of gunfire). And then there’s the good cop vs. bad cop formula (which also often resolves itself with a few well-placed bullets).
Training Day knots together these two formula, using all the best clichés of both, following police officer Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) through his first day as part of an elite undercover narcotics unit led by Detective Sergeant Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington). Hoyt’s first day on the Harris’s squad, it turns out, will also be his last.
"Lawless are they,” wrote Shakespeare, “that make their wills their law. '' Alonzo Harris is one of those men who makes his will his law, a renegade cop with the support and cooperation of a like-minded cabal of Los Angeles politicians, police officers, and criminals. This arrangement makes him an extremely effective undercover cop, it also makes him evil. Early in the film it becomes clear Harris is willing to cross lines other men will not cross. The question hanging in the air for the rest of the film—just how far over those line will he go?
Training Day has little room from subtleties or gray areas. It never so much as flirts with moral complexity, and the adrenaline-stoked, hipper-than-thou styles of writer David Ayer (The Fast and the Furious) and John Woo-wannabe director Antoine Fuqua (The Replacement Killers, Bait, and numerous music videos) are a bit off-putting.
Hoyt and Harris are polar opposites: rookie cop/veteran cop, good cop/bad cop, white cop/black cop. Between them swirls a citywide maelstrom of violence, corruption, and hopelessness. They begin in different worlds, and never the two worlds shall meet.
Like the old Westerns where the heroes wore white hats and the villains wore black hats, Training Day telegraphs its intentions almost from the beginning.
The film is saved from Hollywood silliness only by some strong performances. Hawke is convincing as the naïve newcomer, and (somewhat surprisingly) holds his own on screen with Washington well enough to receive a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. Veteran character actors Tom Berenger and Scott Glenn each offer brief but memorable supporting performances as two very different but evil middle-aged white guys. The real substance of Training Day, though, is Alonzo Harris as portrayed by Denzel Washington.
Washington should have won an Academy Award for Best Actor by now (he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1989 for Glory), if not for Hurricane, than for Malcolm X, or Philadelphia, or Devil in a Blue Dress, or Mo’ Better Blues, or A Soldier’s Story. He’s been nominated again this year for his performance in Training Day, playing a villain for the first time in his career. There’s a good chance he won’t win again this year, but his performance is at least the equal of that of any of the other nominees.
He’s able to take the role of Alonzo Harris, a fairly one-dimensional character, and instill in the character an inarticulate and deeply troubled humanity that seeps out almost subliminally from beneath the film’s more lurid action and dialogue. Playing a corrupt psychopath who revels in his own heart of darkness even as it’s pulling him over the edge. It’s an extraordinarily over-the-top, scenery-chewing, “King Kong’s got nothing on me,” everything-including-the-kitchen-sink performance that’s awesome, slightly schlocky, and a little disturbing, yet, at the same time, strangely appealing.
Training Day is not in the least a realistic movie, although it sometimes seems to think that it is, and it has more than its share of ridiculous moments (the final scene, for example). Amid the nonsense, though, you catch glimpses of the tragedy and ugliness of Harris’s world. No, there probably aren’t (thank goodness) any cops like Alonzo Harris on the streets of L.A. right now, but, as Hoyt finds out, and as we already knew but may have needed to be reminded, there’s some of Detective Sergeant Alonzo Harris in each of us, and he’s always waiting for us just on the other side of the line. It’s wouldn’t take much of a stride for us to just step over.
Now that’s scary.
--Matt Parks (Feb 16, 2002)