Training Day

Reviewed By MP Bartley
Posted 03/17/02 04:20:13

"Get this. A thriller that thrills."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

One of the current plague of movies that I find most annoying is the 'buddy' movie. You know the kind I mean, two mis-matched cops; one a wild-card, the other a by-the-book kind of guy; who despite their differences unite with 'hilarious' results. This, thankfully, is the flipside of that little genre and occasionally gets as nasty as they come.

'Training Day' is the one day that LA cop Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) gets a chance to ride with the narcotics department, under the supervision of Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington). From the outset it becomes clear that Harris is in no mood to make this is an easy day for Hoyt. He humiliates him in a restaurant for interrupting his daily read of the papers. He berates him for his lack of street knowledge, and he shows him that on the streets, justice isn't always legal.

'Training Day' is a film that falls neatly into two parts. In the first part, Harris and Hoyt cruise the streets, Harris imparting his wisdom onto Hoyt in return for testing how far Hoyts moral fibre will stretch. He makes Hoyt smoke cannabis laced with pcp, but makes the very good point of how can Hoyt work in the extremely dangerous field of narcotics if he doesn't have the first clue of what narcotics are like? How indeed.

Harris knocks criminals to the floor and gives them a beating they'll never forget before leaving them to wipe each other out. As he points out to the frustated, justice seeking Hoyt, it'll be a lot more effective than a night in cells.

The first half of the film is easily the best. The skill of the writing, direction and acting leave you in an ambigious moral field. Yes, the things Harris does are morally and legally wrong, but if they cut crime and keep the dealers and gangsters off the streets it's worth it surely? Every time Hoyt tries to intervene he usually makes things worse or fails woefully.

I've never been to LA so I can't tell how accurate this portrayal is of a city on the edge and a hopelessly lost police force. But it sure seems it. Director Antoine Fuqua, keeps a fine line between the cinematic seediness of 'LA Confidential' and the documentary harshness of 'NYPD Blue'. LA is shot in acid haze of heat that keeps the audience uncomfortable and on their seats, while alluding to the whole ambiguity of the situation.

Fuqua is a director who is unlikely to be one of the greats. But I firmly believe that every director has one great film within them if they grasp with both hands (well, maybe not Simon West) and this is Fuqua's opportunity. And he runs with it, making what could be a run of the mill film a tense two hander.

However he can't prevent the second half tipping into some theatrics. It's at the half-way point that we learn that Harris is more than a rogue cop and is setting Hoyt up to cover his past indiscretions. It's at this point that the character focus shifts from Harris to Hoyt and how he uses his newly-gained street knowledge to extricate himself from the situation he's been thrown in. This is a far more familiar situation of good-versus-bad guy and Fuqua doesn't quite pull it off like he does the first part. There's one twist in particular that stunk and had me going 'Oh please...' and you'll know it when you see it. It's bad, but not so bad that it ruins everything gone before.

As well as Fuqua, plaudits should also be given to the two leads. Hawke is at a career best here (not saying much I know) and does a good job showing a cop visibly toughing up as the film progresses. It's not unlike Costner's transformation as Elliot Ness in 'The Untouchables'. Indeed, 'Traing Day' could be described as the dark flipside of the Costner-Connery relationship from that film.

But as his fifth Oscar nomination shows,this is Denzel's show. He's surely been crying out for a truly villanious role after portraying a seemingly endless role of hard-done-by heroes (The Hurricane, Cry Freedom etc) and here he gets it. In 'Fallen' for example, Washington hinted a darker side to his craft and given the chance to let it out to play here, he takes it with both hands.

In a part that would normally go to Snipes, Washington just burns the screen as Harris. Effortlessly capturing the characters intelligence and danger he convinces the audience as one of the nastiest cops in a long while. But as only a truly great actor can he always leaves the audience with a sneaking suspicion that his way of dealing with the criminals is right. It's the kind of turn that can re-define careers. With enough jewellery to bankrupt Death Row records and a brilliantly un-pc turn of phrase (he christens Hoyt 'My nigger' and asks if he still fucks his wife face-to-face), Washington gives us the kind of morally-suspect hero/villain we haven't had for a long time.

Unfortunatley the script doesn't have the heart of it's nasty convictions, and loses its nerve towards the end for a more routine showdown. For all it's shade of grey previously, it ends dissapointingly black-and-white. But thanks to some terrific directing and acting, 'Training Day' more than passes the test.

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