Training Day (United States, 2001)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Arriving in theaters two weeks late but otherwise unscathed is Antoine Fuqua's Training Day, the story of an idealistic young cop who gets a hard lesson about life in the streets from a veteran. Shining with the star power of Denzel Washington (playing the most morally ambiguous role of a fruitful career) and Ethan Hawke, Training Day crackles with energy. It's two hours long, but seems a lot shorter. However, as good as most of the movie is, it could have been better had the ending evidenced more careful scripting and less of a reliance upon contrivances.

This isn't in any way a "typical" undercover cop motion picture. Fuqua has publicly admitted as much, stating that, although this was not his debut feature (he previously helmed The Replacement Killers and Bait), it was the first directorial effort that meant something to him and was, at least in part, drawn from his memories of growing up in Los Angeles. Training Day is about something - it's not a series of generic gunfire and chase sequences. It asks the compelling question of whether it's possible to effectively fight crime without descending to the level of the criminal. Can an idealist be a warrior and protector? On the streets, what's the difference between good and evil? These questions have added relevance in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attack, when the need for vengeance as a means of closure threatens to blind us to all other concerns.

Ethan Hawke is Jake Hoyt, an ambitious L.A. cop who wants to make detective. The fastest route to that position is to join the elite team headed by legendary undercover figure Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington). To that end, Jake has been given one day to prove to Alonzo that he's ready for the job. At first, things don't go well - Alonzo scoffs at Jake's by-the-book attitude. "You've got to hear the street, smell it, taste it," he admonishes. Then, later, "This is street justice. It takes a wolf to catch a wolf... It's ugly, but it's like that." So Jake starts to learn - smoking some LSD-laced weed after Alonzo tells him, "A good narcotics officer must have narcotics in his blood." But things soon get out of hand, with Alonzo breaking the law more often than upholding it, and Jake begins to wonder what kind of hell he has lost himself in.

Ethan Hawke does a solid job in a thankless role. He's the film's "everyman" - the bland, honorable guy we're supposed to identify with. Not surprisingly, Washington has the plum role, stealing scene after scene as he utters gritty dialogue and glares into the camera. After playing righteous men in The Hurricane and Remember the Titans, Washington finds himself completely at ease in a part that has him leaning towards the other side of the moral compass. Other than the two leads, there are no significant parts, although Scott Glenn, Tom Berenger, Dr. Dre, and Snoop Dogg have supporting roles.

The movie asks hard questions and rarely gives an easy answer. It's riveting and intense, with just enough action to satisfy those who enjoy that genre and enough substance to satiate viewers who are tired of the long litany of dumb motion pictures marching through multiplexes. Unfortunately, Training Day doesn't deliver the complete package. The last 15 minutes are full of cliches, contrivances, and smart characters acting dumb - all in the name of providing a "pat" conclusion. The disappointing climax is not enough to take Training Day off the recommendation list - the rest of the film is too strong - but it diminishes its impact.

It's rare these days that a movie being touted as a "contemporary action thriller" (Warner Brothers' words, not mine) can stand tall as a piece of social commentary. There's an almost Shakespearean quality about the construction of the narrative (at least until the final fifteen minutes), and Alonzo is the kind of charismatic, flawed individual that the Bard would have enjoyed penning a tale about. For those of us who don't really care about the Elizabethan playwright, all this means is that Training Day represents a mainstream motion picture that can be seen and appreciated as more than "mindless entertainment".

Training Day (United States, 2001)

Director: Anthony Fuqua
Cast: Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke, Scott Glenn
Screenplay: David Ayer
Cinematography: Mauro Fiore
Music: John Houlihan
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 2001-10-05
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1