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Training Day   B+

Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Writer: David Ayer
Cast: Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke, Scott Glenn, Tom Berenger, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Macy Gray.

Review by Rob Vaux

Watch Denzel Washington as he strides through Training Day. Look at the eyes that belie his false smile, the mannerisms that set everyone around him on edge. Notice the way he clenches cigarettes between his teeth, or the smooth justifications that roll off of his tongue. From opening credits to final reel, he holds this film in his thrall, the power of his performance impossible to deny -- even when you might wish otherwise. Recently, Washington has become the sole redeemer of otherwise milquetoast productions, shining all the brighter for the banality around him. In Training Day, he takes the trick one step higher: lifting the script, direction and fellow performers to a different level. Without him -- or the terse game we play with his character, Alonzo Harris -- we might as well be watching a run-of-the-mill cop show.

We first hear Harris as a voice on the phone, speaking to new recruit Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke). Hoyt wishes to join Harris's elite police narcotics unit, and has 24 hours to prove himself. The film follows the two men during this single day, charting the vast moral abyss they must cross in order to do their jobs. We soon learn that Harris is far more dangerous than he appears: manipulating others with unconscious ease, pushing Hoyt in unexpected directions, challenging anyone and everyone who stands between him and his goals. He prowls streets ruled by thugs and hustlers, at times appearing indistinguishable from the criminals he's trying to catch. At first, his results seem to speak for themselves -- Harris is a near-legend in the LAPD, handing out "nearly 15,000 man years of incarceration time." But as morning creeps into afternoon, and Hoyt sees more and more of Harris's modus operandi, he begins to wonder if any results justify such brutal methods.

Training Day is at its best flirting with that nebulous moral gray area, forcing the audience to ask whether Harris's actions are acceptable in light of the greater good he does. Director Antoine Fuqua develops this question with delicacy and care, using Washington's performance as a fulcrum. Harris keeps Hoyt (and us) completely off-balance, denying the opportunity to render a judgement. He crosses the line bit by bit, bolstering his Machiavellian games by the grim conditions around him. By the time we finally learn which side he's on, moral distinctions have all but disappeared. Hawke's fresh-faced good looks make him an ideal foil for Washington's infernal charisma. By showing us the story through his eyes, we become as trapped as he by the questions Harris's actions pose.

The film is less successful when it loses its sense of daring and falls back on more conventional material. Fuqua has a nice eye and a good sense of timing, but depends too much on his video director roots. At times Training Day feels uncomfortably slick, which contrasts its gritty-slice-of-urban life premise. Many of the plot elements fit together a little too neatly, the supporting characters come dangerously close to stereotyping, and some of the film's criminals flirt with exploitation status. It's difficult to believe in the drama when such obvious artifice sticks its fingers in.

But all of that vanishes in the face of Washington's performance: drenched in charisma and almost irresistibly watchable. He towers above the film's petty failings, overwhelming them with his sheer presence and defying us to tear our eyes away. You can see the rest of the cast and crew endeavoring to match him, stretching themselves to avoid getting blown off the screen. Even as the plot devices wear thin and the moral vagaries settle into clear-cut good guys/bad guys territory, the urge to go that extra mile keeps the filmmakers on course. None of it would be possible without Washington in the lead. "King Kong ain't got shit on me!" he seethes in the film's bloody climax. It's hard to fault that assessment.

Review published 10.10.2001.

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