by Jack Sommersby
A piss-poor cop flick with a limited dramatic arc and heaping helpings of whopping implausibilities.To get a fair idea of how appallingly stupid the new police thriller Training Day truly is, you need only consider a pivotal scene that occurs late in the film. A narcotics rookie officer of the LAPD, Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke), is being held down at gunpoint in a bathtub by a trio of disagreeable Latinos -- a set-up which has been engineered, mind you, by Hoyt's corrupt superior officer, Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington), to erase him as a witness to an illegal murder committed just a few scenes back -- when all of a sudden, right before the trigger is pulled, one of them opts to snag Hoyt's wallet before the ensuing bloodbath. The wallet, though, happens not to belong to Hoyt, but to a teenage girl he'd saved from a back-alley rape earlier that day, the same girl who just happens to be the niece of the head baddie who's holding a shotgun to his head. The uncle takes out his cell phone, conveniently gets a hold of his niece right then, and Hoyt's assertion is confirmed that he was indeed the knight and shining armor who came to her rescue. Result: Hoyt is thanked, allowed safe passage out, and stalks out into the night, gun in hand, to do final battle with Harris.
"Give Back the Undeserved Oscar, Denzel."
"Suspension of disbelief" is a fundamental necessity for any fictional medium to convince us that the made-up is entirely plausible -- at least according to the specifics of reality presented before us by the fiction-maker. Being that Training Day puports to be a gritty, unflinching expose of the corrupt underbelly of any given metropolitan police force, the scene I've just detailed is simply inexcusable: it insults the living hell out of the audience, expecting us to swallow, without a shred of doubt, a load of trumped-up contrivances that even a sub-par TV cop show'd be too proud to parade in front of unsuspecting eyes. But what really digs the film an even deeper and disgraceful cinematic grave is the majority of scenes preceding it aren't any more plausible by comparison. It's a disgusting, downright repugnant film not only because it squanders the ever-timely topic of police corruption, but that a good deal of American films critics have seen fit to champion it as something even remotely substantial or incisively scathing.
You've been down this tired old road before, believe me. A young, wide-eyed, earnest, principled cop (Hoyt) is quickly corrupted and ethically soiled by a corrupt veteran officer (Harris) who's taken him under his wing. Promotion-eager and career-savvy, Hoyt only thinks he'll do whatever it takes to get the job done, to 'make a difference' out there on the streets. Of course, he's unprepared for the repercussions that come along with it, like the fact that the highly-decorated officer administering his training is inherently no better than the street scum they're combating. Harris has been derived as the grown-up (wised-up?) version of the man Hoyt is (inevitable?) to become, once full of vigor and promise and crusading principle for the better good only to be broken down by the hopelessness of his job and relegated to his basic human nature of selfish greed. But the film doesn't add up that way. In its quest to go the formula route, to give generic popcorn-munchers a strong-willed hero to root for during the ending passages, the film winds up pulling itself apart by abandoning the dark implication that all men are prone to evil, that Hoyt, however stoic and well-meaning at the onset, is as vulnerable to succumbing to selfish temptation and staying at that level as much as the next person, just so a perfunctory showdown between good versus evil can be presented at the end.
It's not enough that the character of Hoyt has been saddled with a loving wife and newborn baby, but in Harris' company is given to hackneyed speeches about wanting "to do some good in the world", which are trite anyway but even more so being that they conjure up memories of Brad Pitt's naive upstate cop David Mills' utterances in David Fincher's serial killer pic Se7en (a masterpiece, by the way). There, Mills was justifiably earmarked as a myopic fool and self-serving patsy, whereas in Training Day, Hoyt represents tainted but ultimately wholesome 'goodness'. There's never any viable tension worked up between Hoyt and Harris because the lines have been so clearly and simplistically drawn up to separate the two not by dramatic complexity but by, like in an old Western, who's wearing the white or black hat -- or, in this case, who's white- or black-skinned. In Mike Figgis' seductively swank Internal Affairs, Richard Gere's corrupt-to-the-bone L.A. cop was pitted against Andy Garcia's unpleasantly determined IA investigator, and the psychological linkage between the two was fascinating to behold in that these master manipulators had finally met their match, their doppelganger. In Training Day, there's no dramatic foliage or gray areas clouding the main issues -- just a lot of ho-hum morality plays targeted at the easily impressionable.
So I'm all the more mystified over how some critics demeaned Training Day for its final-third conventionalities when in fact the whole entire enterprise from start to finish irrefutably reeks of cheapened authenticity. I guess the foolhardy are more than willing to overlook scenes like Harris stopping his car in the middle of a busy intersection and forcing Hoyt -- at gunpoint, in broad daylight -- to smoke a marijuana pipe right in front of several onlookers. Later on, Harris opens up with a couple of chrome-plated handguns at eight to ten armed homeboys in east L.A., and he and Hoyt manage to drive away with only a blasted windshield as a liability. Oh, and you must know that Hoyt, while riding the after-effects of PCP-laced marijuana, not to mention a couple of malt-liquor brewskies afterward, is able to stand up and life-savingly react during that gunfight. Further: the subplot involving Harris' needing to score one million dollars before a payoff deadline (at midnight, of course) for beating a well-connected Russian mafia big-shot to death in Las Vegas over the weekend is the sort of story appendage cooked up by a screenwriter only a mother could love.
The writer in question is David Ayres, who penned the passable WWII adventure yarn U-571, which, truth be told, benefited from director Jonathan Mostow's impressive staging rather than the cliche-ridden script. Ayres reportedly has spent a good many years hanging out with cops, which apparently impressed some dim-witted studio execs into believing this gave him an exclusive on 'the way things are' out there on those mean-a*s streets. As I see it, in coming up with this miserable script, Ayres simply plunked himself down in front of his widescreen TV over a week period, rented numerous cop-themed videos, and concocted a mere compilation of Better Films Past. Training Day isn't possessive of a single original scene, or a halfway-workable one, at that, with false dialogue and phony situations telegraphing each and every plot development several minutes ahead of time. And matching the shallowness of the script is Antoine Fuqua's too-slick direction. With such guilty pleasures as The Replacement Killers and Bait, Fuqua's limited narrative skills were off-set by the sheer plasticity of the stories; but with Training Day, his smooth and mechanically dexterous camera movements and scene transitions rob the film of the hard, nasty edge the subject warrants. Sure, the pacing is swift, and things are hardly ever boring (it was edited by Oscar-winner Conrad Buff), but neither are the scenes given any kind of dramatic weight. Fuqua either overstresses the emotions or glides right over them altogether, which might give the impression that he's being tactful when in fact his method has more surface than contextual value.
While the roles are pretty much unplayable, matters still aren't help by the two lead actors, both of whom are classically miscast. Ethan Hawke is thoroughly unconvincing as the righteous Hoyt, bereft of both physical variety and vocal command. He isn't bad when directed well in supporting parts, like as Ted Danson's resentful but perceptive son in 1989's Dad or the quintessential slacker in 1993's Reality Bites, but when given a hefty part, his severe limitations show, as they do here. As for Denzel Washington, he's certainly racked up the critical raves (and a dubious Oscar win) for his showy performance, but it's more showboating than acting, more presentation than interpretation. While one can argue that his character is a showboater using his considerable charisma and charm to manipulate, there still needs to be the indication of the innerworkings of an actual man underneath. Washington is nothing but exteriors here, expecting his own undeniable charisma to carry the day; instead of bravely burrowing deep down to unearth a three-dimensional, flawed man, all we get is the same self-satisfied Washington snow job -- all well-oiled jive and hot air. Ditto the film.See 1990's fine "Internal Affairs" instead.
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originally posted: 01/10/03 03:14:01