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With: Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke, Scott Glenn, Tom Berenger, Snoop Dogg, Macy Gray, Dr. Dre, Eva Mendes, Charlotte Ayanna
Written by: David Ayer
Directed by: Antoine Fuqua
MPAA Rating: R for strong brutal violence, pervasive language, drug content and brief nudity
Running Time: 120
Date: 09/02/2001

Training Day (2001)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Train in Vain

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Training Day was held back a couple of weeks after the horrifying Sept. 11 attack, but not because it has anything to do with terrorists or plane crashes. It's simply a film about the lives of Los Angeles cops, who deal with a constant, numbing stream of violence. It's the type of violence that continues buzzing at street level no matter how radically the mood of the country changes.

I saw Training Day before the attack, and my enthusiasm for it has not waned. But I should warn potential viewers that its violence really gets under the skin and might be hard to take in these more uncertain times.

On this particular day, Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) begins his training as a narcotics cop with veteran Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington) as his mentor. Things begin shakily as Jake prepares to check in at the station for roll call before Alonzo calls him and tells him to skip that and to meet him at a restaurant. Alonzo tells Jake that they're "going to the office," but "the office" turns out to nothing more than Alonzo's spiffy car. Thus we're instantly cut off from any other authority figure besides Alonzo. It feels slightly shady, but now we're completely and totally in Alonzo's hands.

Anyone who has started a new job knows how terrifying it can be. You wander through blindly, putting on a happy face, latching onto your authority figures for help. But Alonzo proves intimidating at best and downright scary at worst. Jake tries his best to be friendly, but Alonzo verbally knocks him on his behind, warning him that to show the slightest hint of warmth on the street can be fatal.

Alonzo shows Jake around town, taking him on a drug bust, making him smoke dope as a test of his street credibility, taking him to see a fellow cop (Scott Glenn) and a drug dealer (Snoop Dogg), searching a strange woman's (Macy Gray's) house, and visiting his own girlfriend (Eva Mendes) for a noontime romp. The day drags on, Jake trying to shake off his drug-induced haze and also a growing sense of fear. With each stop Alonzo makes, a sinister plan comes more and more into focus.

I can't say any more without giving away the power of this magnificent script, written by David Ayer in a tremendous step up from his previous lackluster works (The Fast and the Furious and U-571). I will say, however, that I did not like this film's ending. The film reaches a breaking point and doesn't seem to know what to do next, and so wanders off into implausibility.

I must also mention that this is Denzel Washington's finest performance since Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), and perhaps the finest performance of his entire career. Looking at his previous performances in Malcolm X or The Hurricane, it now seems as if he were tied up and dipped in concrete. For the first time, Washington breaks free, spreads his wings and really cuts loose -- strutting, slack, dangerous. His noble boy scout/choir boy image seems to be gone for good.

Against my better judgment, I must also compliment director Antoine Fuqua, whose contributions to cinema so far are the exceedingly sloppy The Replacement Killers and Bait. Now, not only does he do justice to Ayer's script, but he coaxes that marvelous performance out of Washington, as well as a solid one by Hawke (who, let's face it, is pretty overshadowed here).

Though the violence is what most people will be concentrating on in writing about Training Day, I was impressed that it dares to be a cop movie based on character and not on pyrotechnics (a phenomenon I discussed recently with director William Friedkin). We identify with newcomer Jake and through him interact directly with Alonzo. Everything else is just side effects.

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