This may be a strange time to release a thriller about the dangers of corrupt law enforcement, but Training Day -- with no explosions, no cheap thrills, no international conspiracies -- is about as distant from current East Coast realities as possible. Still, that doesn't mean that it qualifies as escapism. This gripping police drama from director Antoine Fuqua is relentlessly hard-boiled, with a calculated (and welcome) change-of-pace performance from Denzel Washington. Washington has built his career on playing heroes, and the good-guy persona he's established has just been waiting to be exploited in reverse. As Los Angeles Police Department narcotics detective Alonzo Harris, Washington creates an indelibly charming and terrifying character whose volatile blend of dedication and horrible expediency keeps us off balance.
Unlike most recent Washington films, Training Day doesn't invite us to identify with his character; he's not the protagonist. That role belongs to Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke), Harris's new partner; Hoyt is the classic fresh-faced, ambitious kid straight out of the Valley, looking for the fast track to the detectives' bureau. (Think of a shallower, less sophisticated version of L.A. Confidential's Ed Exley.) It's clear from the opening scenes that a tour of duty with Alonzo is going to be the fast track to something -- at the very least, an intensive education in the ways of L.A.'s meanest streets.
The title Training Day is cleverly literal: David Ayer's script takes place over a single day, from morning till past midnight, as Jake gets a crash course in how things really work. His mentor, Alonzo, is a master at working the streets: He's allegedly undercover, but the dealers and bystanders know he's a cop. (It's obvious he's not a low-profile guy the moment we see his bitchin' 1978 Monte Carlo low-rider, complete with hydraulics.) What they don't know for sure is whether he's the dirtiest cop in town or simply pretending to be. It's a question at the heart of the film, and one that isn't resolved until the film's final quarter.
Acting like a Zen master, Alonzo seems determined to push all of Jake's buttons. He repeatedly swerves from affable tutor to aggressive psycho and back again -- threatening Jake at gunpoint, forcing him to drink and take drugs ("To be truly effective, a good narcotics agent must know and love narcotics," he explains), offering abuse on top of praise. The sum of his behavior is presumably part of some pedagogical exercise. Or is it?
As the day wears on, the duo encounter a cross-section of the interlocking circles of the cop-criminal power structure. They run into a crippled street dealer (Snoop Dogg) and a barrio gang member (Cliff Curtis), an older cop (Scott Glenn) who appears to be Alonzo's former partner, and white-collar political heavies (Tom Berenger, Raymond J. Barry and Harris Yulin) who use Alonzo to do their dirty work. (Macy Gray and Dr. Dre also show up; it's a Vibe photo shoot.) This experience seems bound to turn Jake from a dewy-eyed idealist to a cynical nihilist in one long day.
Ayer's script is filled with surprises, most of which stem from our constantly shifting perspective of Alonzo. While Ayer says he started writing the script in 1995, it's hard to believe that the story wasn't inspired (or at least deeply affected) by the Rampart scandal -- the worst such affair in the LAPD's hardly scandal-free history -- which first reached the public in 1998 and has continued to make headlines ever since. Washington even seems to be coiffed and made up to look a little like Rampart linchpin-cum-informant Rafael Perez.
There are a few questionable elements in Ayer's script, many of which result from its one-day time scheme. Our suspension of disbelief has to endure a number of assaults; for instance, as Alonzo exposes more of his dark side to an unproven partner on his first day than makes sense. The story eventually gives reasons for some of this apparent indiscretion, but that doesn't stop these scenes from hurting the story's credibility along the way. Perhaps more crucially, one extreme and unlikely coincidence becomes crucial to the plot. In a less realistic film, this wouldn't be a problem, but in a gritty portrait of street life like Training Day it sticks out as egregiously as the pale Jake does in the ghettos into which Alonzo takes him.
Washington, always a highly controlled performer, clearly enjoys the opportunity to trade on his image; while he has often played compromised characters, he has never had a chance before to go this far into the moral heart of darkness. Hawke seems flimsy and insubstantial in comparison, but it's hard to knock his performance when he was obviously cast for precisely those qualities. Most of all, however, this represents a big leap forward for Fuqua, whose two previous features -- the 1998 Chow Yun-Fat vehicle The Replacement Killers and the 2000 Jamie Foxx action-comedy Bait -- were more impressive for their visual flair than their storytelling or characterization. With Training Day, he has finally hit his stride.