BY PATRICK REED
The swaggering behemoth that is American popular entertainment is treading lightly today, three-plus weeks after the terrorist attacks, moving with extreme caution into an uncertain future. Right now there’s an enveloping sense of cultural disconnect, especially when it comes to movies. All of the new releases feel locked in time, each of them pitched, planned, shot and strategized for a different, somehow more innocent (and inwardly-focused) audience.
Training Day, the new Denzel Washington picture, is a case in point. It seems like an artifact from an era long past, when domestic concerns were front and center in the American conscience. In fact, its subject matter couldn’t be more timely. Remember, it was only months ago that Rudy Giuliani was in the headlines for his stalwart defense of the N.Y.P.D., which was under attack for the Louima and Diallo abuses of power, among other things – and locally, the community disputes over law enforcement in Louisville and especially tension-filled Cincinnati are far from being resolved.
Training Day plunges into the trenches of what is arguably the most scandal-ridden law enforcement department in recent years – the L.A.P.D. – but, despite Washington’s powerfully seductive performance as a delusional and dirty cop, the film settles for intense action and personal drama instead of offering any broader, more perceptive insight into the cycle of perpetual corruption. That’s not to say that Training Day is a typical shoot ’em up, brainless product. There’s a lot of skill and craft on display here – director Antoine Fuqua , like so many young Hollywood “shooters,” comes from the visually arresting world of music video and big-budget commercials. His direction here improves upon his previous two efforts, The Replacement Killers (1998) and Bait (2000), although subtlety is of course nowhere to be found (this movie is, perhaps you guessed, drenched in the braggadocio of hip-hop culture – and obligingly features Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, and Macy Gray in supporting roles). David Ayer’s screenplay starts off crisp and energetic, setting a pace it can’t sustain but offering several suspenseful set pieces along the way. Washington is Washington. So, even if Training Day accelerates into an implausible and incoherent piece of often-brutal entertainment – as pure, relentless diversion – it succeeds.
A quick plot summary: idealistic rookie Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke, shaking off his mid-nineties slacker persona) gets his wish to try out for the elite undercover narc squadron and is assigned to partner with the main man himself, Alonzo Harris (Washington), as he patrols the crime-ridden grid of South Central Los Angeles in a badass, customized Monte Carlo. (The movie’s sense of place is one of its strengths; an HBO “making of” piece reveals that Fuqua shot on location in and around the streets where he grew up – Watts, Lynwood, Compton, all clustered around the notorious Imperial Highway.) During the span of one day – keep this in mind – Hoyt learns that Alonzo has no regard for police procedure when it comes to a) drinking on the job, b) doing drugs on the job, c) physically abusing perps, d) ignoring traffic laws, e) letting felons walk free, f) breaking and entering, g) gang-style gunplay and so on, escalating to some seriously violent, criminally conspiratorial behavior.
The extent of Alonzo’s venality seems ludicrous, but think for a minute about the L.A.P.D.’s thuggish, real-life headlines over the past decade from Rodney King to Mark Fuhrman on up to the recent Rampart Division disaster. Maybe Training Day is onto something after all. At any rate, Hoyt learns quickly that the whole criminal justice hierarchy in the City of Angels is revealed to be debased beyond redemption as Alonzo, his squad and even his superiors – so-called “wise men” from Division Command and the D.A.’s office – are attempting to manipulate the pervasive drug trade for their own personal gain. The main plot thrust centers around Hoyt’s decision to fight off Alonzo’s enticements, and Ayer’s script changes from an often-authentic account of the ethical compromises police make while fighting crime out on the streets to a gargantuan struggle between good (Hoyt) and evil (Alonzo) – again, all in a single day.
Action formula wins out in Training Day as the spread of corruption becomes so enormous that it’s hard to keep track of Alonzo’s manipulations. The character threatens to become a monster by film’s end, but Washington never lets it happen. Over the past decade, Washington has dominated several quality pictures – Malcolm X (1992), He Got Game (1998), and The Hurricane (1999), to name a few – and he does so here as well, embodying a fearsome-yet-funny villain with relish. The stodgy Academy will undoubtedly shun this street-wise, chillingly intense performance, but Alonzo Harris may well become one of Washington’s most enduring characters – similar in appeal to Al Pacino’s Tony Montana in the critically scorned but enormously influential Scarface.