A sleeping man’s eyes struggle open and he stares at his alarm clock’s luminous digits: it is 4:59 A.M. A second later, it flickers to 5:00, the alarm buzzer jolts him to full consciousness, and his fist instantly silences it. Even in the first scene of Training Day, director Antoine Fuqua and screenwriter David Ayer are playing with cliches, taking something that has been squeezed dry in one direction, and twisting it back on itself to wring out those extra few drops. The fact that Ethan Hawke’s eyes open a second before the clock buzzes tells the audience more about his state of mind vis-a-vis his just-begun training day on the narcotics squad than several pages of expositional dialogue ever could. The fact that the expositional dialogue is included anyway (in this case, the next scene, in which his loving wife wishes him luck) is perhaps the film’s one major weakness – the filmmakers don’t quite trust their talents, instincts, or material, all of which are just fine. Instead they show, then they tell – just to make sure the audience gets it.
The reason Jake Hoyt (Hawke) is nervous is that he has just one day to prove to a veteran narcotics detective that he is cop enough to join his elite unit. Little does he know that the detective he will be trying to impress, Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington), is so aggressive, corrupt, and monstrous that by day’s end Hoyt will have broken nearly every law he swore to uphold.
Washington plays Harris as some kind of Nietzschean �bermensch, dominating with bullish machismo every situation in which he finds himself. The two men meet at a diner, where Harris – decked out in a black leather coat, black skull cap and some seriously heavy jewelry – plays all kinds of low-level power games with his new protege: pushing him to order some food and then telling him “It’s too late, you fucked that up,” when Hoyt finally agrees to order something. He asks Hoyt for a story and then ridicules the one he eventually comes up with. It is a well-paced scene and both actors play it to the hilt – Hawke is uneasy and eager to please, and his confusion is very real as Washington bats him around like a cat toying with a mouse.
In the course of their day together, riding around LA in Harris’s jet black, souped-up Monte Carlo, the two men encounter a good deal of criminal activity, but it becomes increasingly apparent to Hoyt that much of it is being tolerated, nurtured, or even committed, by police officers in general and Harris in particular.
They haven’t driven more than a few blocks before the rookie is being forced at gunpoint by his mentor to smoke a pipeful of the PCP-laden marijuana they just ‘confiscated’ from a carload of suburban kids attempting to flee a drug deal. “You wanna protect the sheep, you gotta become a wolf,” urges Washington, as Hawke’s eyes mist over and his point-of-view shots take on a vile, greenish hue (rhetorical question: when will filmmakers stop using heavy-handed camera tricks to represent the effects of drug use?)
Hawke’s disbelief grows as he sees this department legend resort to the most underhanded tactics – assaulting, intimidating and releasing offenders instead of booking them; conducting an illegal search using a hastily waved Chinese menu in place of a search warrant and then exchanging heavy gunfire with an incoming street gang when the deception is discovered.
In short, the police department is corrupt. This is hardly a shock to most viewers, this concept being as old as cinema itself. To its credit, then, Training Day digs a little deeper and shows, every bit as well as such genre milestones as The French Connection and A Touch of Evil, how intertwined the worlds of crime and police work are. The criminals and police have a symbiotic relationship, with blurred edges, each allowing the other to operate. Taking advantage of Hoyt’s inexperience and fresh-faced eagerness, Harris bends the rules with such charm and confidence, that his pupil is in up to his waist before he realizes his feet are wet.
The script gives Ethan Hawke more to do than just react with shock and disapproval at all he sees, and Hawke himself muddies the waters even further – his Hoyt is so keen to impress his teacher that he begins, not quite unconsciously, to imitate Harris’s mannerisms and body language in a way that is almost flirtatious. At the beginning he’s a shy family man, but after just a few hours as Harris’s charge, he sits slumped in the passenger seat with a beer in his hand, giving sneering, mock-tough-guy responses to Harris’s questions. Whatever sickness Harris has, it’s contagious, and Hawke plays Hoyt’s inner conflict well – his ambition allowing him to sink into Harris’s twilight world, until he visibly catches himself, snapping back to reality with a start. He is at his most interesting in the scenes when he nearly succumbs, because we can see his mind racing beneath his acquiescent exterior as he wades in out of his depth.
Washington, meanwhile, walks gleefully on water. He explodes in this film with a ferocity he has always hinted at but has never fully explored. His Alonzo Harris is a swaggering, snarling con-man, ill at ease with straight-arrow Hoyt and gleefully welcoming his trainee’s every transgression with a snort and a conspiratorial “My nigga.” Occasional flashes of the virtuous boy scout Washington still show through, but they show through at weird times – such as the affectionate, head-shaking chuckle he allows himself as he brutally beats a suspect in an alley – and Alonzo Harris is all the more unknowable and chilling because of this.
The supporting cast is also strong, with Scott Glenn casting off the stuffy authority-figure persona he has adopted of late to play a leathery, utterly corroded scumbag, and a variety of musicians (Snoop Dogg, Dr Dre, and Macy Gray) acquitting themselves admirably in some key roles. Fuqua has progressed from music-video-style action fare like Bait and The Replacement Killers to show a flair for tone and character, as well as capturing (for once) the look and feel of LA rather than that of Hollywood.
Hal Hartley once said “There are no happy endings or sad endings, there are only true endings and false endings,” and Training Day is a case in point. A false-feeling moment of utter serendipity saves Hawke’s life, and then what starts as a taut, claustrophobic shoot-out grows into one of those interminable I-kick-you-then-you-kick-me slugfests that movies – even potentially great ones – seem legally required to build to nowadays. Any of the musicians hanging around the set could have told Fuqua you can’t play a song in a plaintive minor key and then end it on a brassy major. Training Day doesn’t quite go this far, but it does grow a conscience in its closing minutes, leaving the audience wishing Fuqua had had the guts to conclude his story with the cynicism and ambiguity it deserved.
– Ben Stephens