Training Day (2001) / Thriller-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for strong brutal violence, pervasive language, drug content and brief nudity
Running Time: 122 min.
Cast: Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke, Scott Glenn, Dr. Dre, Snoop Doggy Dogg
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Screenplay: David Ayer
Review published October 12, 2001
After some over-stylized attempts at making action movies with mixed results, Training Day heralds director Antoine Fuqua's (The Replacement Killers, Tears of the Sun) maturity in the field. The former music video director has always seemed to have a flair for visual aesthetics but had appeared more concerned with the technique of his action pieces than in developing strong characterizations, and working with very little in the way of quality writing, he made pretty pictures that failed to really inspire since we didn't care for the characters enough. Training Day breaks Fuqua out of his own mold.
Delving deeply into authentic characterizations and deeper themes, Training Day is a much different kind of cop flick. This tells the tale of Jake Hoyt (Hawke, Snow Falling of Cedars), a rookie cop who seeks quick advancement to become a detective, and decides he would like to join the narcotics division of the LAPD for the fast-track to promotion. Alonzo Harris (Washington, Remember the Titans) is the top dog (or wolf) in the Narc dept. and gives Jake a trial ride-along in order for him to get a taste of the streets and also to test Jake's mettle and see if he has what it takes to do the job. Alonzo's philosophy is that you have to get a little dirty in order to get a hold of the streets and catch the bigger fish that are responsible for most of the crime in the city.
Although Training Day is an implausible story on police corruption, it never feels like it when you're watching it. That is because the acting is terrific, from Denzel down to the one-line players. Even the extras give the film a feel of authenticity, as if danger could erupt at any moment, in any neighborhood, from anyone. The script is another winner from U-571's David Ayer, with controversial themes presented in dubiously devilish ways, with an unsettling moral vs. amoral posturing that at times has us believing there is value in being a crooked cop while at others sickening us with the reality that the cops may be dirtier than the crooks. Ethan Hawke's character gives us the everyman persona to cling to, and we not only genuinely feel for his naivety, but we also care for him as a person. As Jake and Alonzo cruise the city, we sense Jake is always in great danger, being a fish out of water and an obvious rookie in the community, and we are never quite sure if Alonzo is corrupting Jake or merely testing him to see how far he will go.
There was a moment in Training Day where the film was poised to take the big step from being a good movie to an excellent one, perhaps one of the best of the year. It occurs late in the film, where there develops some strife between Alonzo and Jake, and the two different theories on what it means to be a cop clash in the most heated of ways. However, soaring to greatness was not to be on the agenda, but contrarily, a nosedive into the realm of ridiculousness that makes up the last 20 minutes of the film. It's unfortunate that a film with such gritty and sometimes horrific realism would switch gears so close to the goal line, becoming a typical formulaic thriller, because for all intents and purposes it had a strong and very definite point of view that it wanted to drive home and had to that point set us up so beautifully to receive it. But we never do, as the ball was fumbled, never to be recovered.
Training Day is still well worth watching for the performances and as a thought-provoking look at the ills of crime, both in the inner cities but also on the police force hired to stop it. It grabs your attention and refuses to let go for the duration, and I would still give it a strong recommendation despite its flaws. The question now becomes, "What will Fuqua do for an encore?" Will he go back to his tried-and-true over-the-top stylistics or will he turn in movie greatness? With Training Day, he showed the latter 85% of the way.
©2001 Vince Leo