REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:
TRAINING DAY. Warner Brothers, 2001. Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke, Scott Glenn, Tom Berenger. Director: Antoine Fuqua.
A brief warning, if I may, especially to those of you who have not seen the movie and think you might. In my comments that follow, there will be aspects of the film that may be revealed before you’d like to know about them. This is one of those films that if you know too much before it begins, it will spoil everything for you.
Training Day, the film for which Denzel Washington won an Academy Award for Best Actor, works on two different levels. On the surface, it’s a gritty crime film about two cops. One is a veteran African-American detective, Alonzo (Washington) from the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles. The other, Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) a fresh-faced White rookie from the suburban San Fernando Valley who is not prepared for what will face him on his first day — his training day — working in the narcotics division.
As the movie begins, the viewer goes along with Hoyt as he rides along with the charmingly crude Alonzo as they cruise the mean streets of Los Angeles, encountering rapists, thugs, and drug dealers. Alonzo does his best to tell his green apprentice that unless he’s willing to be a wolf, he’s going to be eaten alive by the criminal element plaguing the city.
That’s one level of the film and it’s not a particularly bad police film. There’s plenty of action, and Washington shows he’s a top American film talent. For an actor who had previously played rather cerebral types or at least heroes, he really does seem to lose himself in the role. No surprise then that he won an Oscar.
But there’s a whole other level to Training Day and that’s one that, from what I can tell, seems to have gone little noticed among critics. And that would be the story unfolding from the point of view of the film’s protagonist, Jake Hoyt.
In many ways, the movie isn’t about Alonzo at all. It’s about Jake’s perception of what is happening — or not happening — all around him. For most of the film, Jake thinks he’s in the company of hothead at best, a corrupt cop at worst. But as things progress, he learns that he has perceived the situation incorrectly all the time. True, Alonzo is a hothead and corrupt, but he’s also been working on a scheme involving Jake from the very first moment that the two men meet in a diner.
Much of the film features scenes in which the two men burst into various apartments and houses. Alonzo knows what to expect inside; Jake does not. For most of the movie, we experience this disorientation from Jake’s perspective. What waits inside these homes? Where is Alonzo taking him? Are the people that Alonzo is shaking down criminals or just innocent people caught up in a web of corruption? Everything seems to be happening so fast that Jake can hardly gain a sense of where he is and what is happening.
Typical of the film noir genre, the movie positions Jake as an object, rather than a subject. He’s seemingly at the whims of a world gone mad, caught up in a continual spiral downward. That is until a coincidence — also a noir trait — ends up saving his life and allows him to regain his footing.
Also key to the plot is the fact that very early on Alonzo forces Jake to smoke marijuana, telling him that if he wants to be a narc, he has to be familiar with drugs. Turns out that it isn’t marijuana at all, but the far deadly and more disorienting PCP. Something else that not only changes Jake’s literal perception of urban Los Angeles, but becomes central to the wildly devious plan Alonzo has in mind.
After putting up with Alonzo’s increasingly crazed behavior for a one bruiser of a day and discovering how Alonzo has set him up as a patsy for his plans, Hoyt finally sets upon a course of action that will ultimately lead to his would-be mentor’s final downfall.