Every few years, the Los Angeles Police Department gets embroiled in one scandal or other. The public is then told that the problem has been caused by a few “bad apples”; the system itself remains spotlessly clean.
We get to taste quite a few of those bad apples in Training Day, a 2001 crime thriller that depicts a police culture embedded in corruption and violence. As such, the film could have become an early 21st-century Chinatown – a portrait of a city and a society so corrupt that nothing and no one are what they seem to be. Unfortunately, screenwriter David Ayer and director Antoine Fuqua opted to leave thorny complexities out of their narrative, going instead for the more dishonest – and more commercial – world of reality TV cop shows.
In fact, much like reality TV, Training Day features quick cuts, groovy camera angles, and a soundtrack blasting rap rhythms. (Those add lots of noise – and little else – to the proceedings; soundtrack CD sales, however, have probably been brisk.) None of those tricks, however, can disguise the myriad plot holes that dot the narrative, including an absurd deus ex machina resolution that saves the hero’s life, and an infuriating moralistic finale that comes across like a misplaced homage to Bonnie and Clyde.
The story follows fresh-faced, rookie police officer Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke), whose dream in life is to become an elite narcotics agent for the LAPD. But before landing the difficult job, Hoyt must prove his worth. Enter sour-looking, thirteen-year veteran Detective Sergeant Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington), who accepts to test the young man’s capabilities by riding with him for a day around the mean streets of South-Central Los Angeles.
Hoyt’s training day is not an easy one. Besides having to deal with the usual street thugs, the rookie quickly realizes that Harris is a man who has been working the streets for so long that he has become indistinguishable from the criminals he’s supposed to catch. Worse yet, Hoyt suspects that Harris may have accepted to be his trainer in order to set him up as the fall guy in a major drug deal.
In a showy role made to order for original choice Samuel L. Jackson, Denzel Washington, who won that year’s Best Actor Oscar, tries awfully hard to act like a mean ghetto thug. But missing from Washington’s performance is the sense of menace that should have emanated from every pore of his character. (Even Macy Gray, who shines in a small role, would have been a better choice for Sgt. Harris.)
Ethan Hawke, on the other hand, is a revelation. Here’s an actor who manages to add depth to a seriously underwritten character that more resembles a babe in the woods than a Los Angeles cop. Hawke, in fact, carries the film. Despite his Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, he has much more screen time in Training Day than Best Actor winner Denzel Washington.
Ultimately, Training Day fails because its makers lacked the determination to be faithful to their material. In this tale of encroaching corruption, the villain should have come out victorious. The fact that he doesn’t is bad enough, but the overwrought manner of his comeuppance in the released version (there was at least one alternate ending) shatters any semblance of credibility the picture might have had to offer.
Director Fuqua and screenwriter Ayer wanted to have their bad apple and eat it, too. In Training Day, the inevitable result is a bad case of dyspepsia.
TRAINING DAY (2001). Director: Antoine Fuqua. Cast: Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke, Scott Glenn, Tom Berenger, Harris Yulin, Macy Gray, Eva Mendes, Raymond J. Barry, Cliff Curtis, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre. Screenplay: David Ayer.