There have been many thrillers about “dirty cops” and police corruption. The profession is rife with extreme situations and extreme temptations, which makes for good storytelling. But the deeper struggle between what’s good for the soul and what’s good for the job aren’t usually touched upon.
Training Day is a police drama that skillfully examines the dilemma between morality and action. It’s a well made movie with enough intelligence to make one believe that the harvest has finally ended on the less challenging summer crop.
R for language, violence, drugs, nudity
Unfolding in a single day, Training Day tells the story of an idealistic rookie trying to make detective by joining a narcotics unit, headed by Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington). Nervous yet eager, young athletic Jake (Ethan Hawke) says goodbye to his family, in their only scene, and sets out to make the squad.
Intimidating and direct, seasoned Alonzo is everything inexperienced Jake is not. He is more like a priest than a cop. Dressed in black, his badge shining like a cross around his neck, Alonzo preaches to Jake about life on the street and how not to blow your cover when working a case. He encourages him to smoke some weed, to not let his love for his family show on his face. He makes him remove his wedding band. He opens his eyes to the way things really are, including being on the take. In short, he tests him.
When Jake asks about life at the office, Alonzo replies that his car, a jacked up sedan, is his office. The closest we get to a chain of command is a furtive meeting among some fellow detectives in a restaurant that’s lit so dark, it reminded me of The Godfather.
Gotta Be The Car
In terms of locations, there’s not much more to Training Day than the car, the street, and a few bumps along the way. Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke are in almost every scene. Everything that is relevant in the film is relevant to their characters.
What Training Day repeatedly goes for, instead of something larger and more universal, is an isolated experience. Time seems frozen. In the film’s first scene, Jake silences his alarm clock a split second after it goes off. We never see time leap forward again, only the sun slowly moving over the horizon. The day, the job, is an attempt to come to a place of understanding, no matter how long it takes. To arrive at a moral philosophy of justice that can endure and explain the awful things not only seen, but done.
Denzel’s Best Since Malcolm X
Gradually, the movie resolves Alonzo’s ambiguities in some fairly conventional ways. His malevolence comes with consequences, even though he wears a badge; while Jake’s salvation has a price as well. Occasionally fraught with a few too many obvious religious signifiers, as in the film’s final scene, Training Day does an excellent job of creating tension with very little action.
The explosiveness of Denzel Washington’s performance is something to behold. Ethan Hawke is a bit bland, but that’s the nature of his character. Being good is never as interesting as being tempted.