Training Day is an action thriller about police corruption. Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) is a wide-eyed rookie cop in the Los Angeles Police Department. He aspires to be a detective and jumps at the chance to trail a senior officer in the narcotics division. Alonzo (Denzel Washington) gives him a “training day” he won’t forget in a hurry.Director Antoine Fuqua (The Replacement Killers) shot most of the exteriors in the turbulent region of South Central LA. The pasty-faced Jake sticks out a mile on these streets, but Washington’s Alonzo - dressed in black, dripping in gold chains - has made it his mission to understand “the street”. He’s contemptuous of Jake’s by-the-rulebook approach, and instead advocates street justice - “it takes a wolf to catch a wolf” and protect the sheep.
Ethan Hawke is playing a blank, which is fine in the early scenes when - like the audience - he’s in awe of Alonzo’s authoritative charisma and uncertain what he’ll do next. Alonzo pressures Jake into smoking a dangerous cocktail of drugs on the pretence that it’s dope; he watches passively as Jake is beaten up two thugs he’d interrupted raping a schoolgirl. You can’t be sure how far Alonzo will go - or what his motives are. Is he just about giving Jake a taste of the streets to toughen him up, or does he have some more sinister motive?
Hawke’s reactive performance becomes problematic when we can’t tell which of Alonzo’s provocations ultimately makes him snap and changes his mind about the tough initiation he’s receiving. David Ayer’s screenplay (he also collaborated on The Fast and the Furious) abandons any pretence at exploring the murky morality of street police-work in its final act. Training Day starts out as confronting but the plot becomes, by turns, ludicrous and laborious. The two main characters revert to caricature: figures in a video game fighting to the death.
Which is a shame, since the first half of Training Day carries a charge, mainly thanks to Washington’s electric performance. The tried and tested black cop, white cop formula is adopted and subverted, since this is anything but a buddy movie (though it looks like it might be at the start). Filming in the areas where it’s set gives Training Day an authentic feel, and it looks great. The action escalates over the course of 24 hours, and cinematographer Mauro Fiore’s evocative photography begins the film with the glow of early morning light and ends it during the relative black of an urban night.Unfortunately, there’s a shotgun-down-the-throat sadism to this film that I found much harder to stomach as it progressed. Obviously these are violent neighbourhoods, and it’s easier to accept the violence during the first half, while the film retains a whiff of realism. Alonzo’s notions of street justice turn on doing what’s “ugly and necessary”. By the end, Training Day is plain ugly, and I lost patience with it.