Denzel Washington is a great actor. I'm not really going out on a limb by saying that; I think most people would agree that saying Denzel Washington can act is like saying Michael Jordan can jump a little. But I really mean it, Denzel Washington is a great actor.
It's not just that he's good in every movie he's in; a lot of actors can say that. Michael Douglas, Jack Nicholson, Morgan Freeman; all these guys are wonderful, but if the movie they're in is a dud, well... at least they were good in it. Denzel Washington is different. He elevates the whole movie. He makes a potentially bad movie good, simply by his presence. The Bone Collector? That should have been a poor rip-off of Silence of the Lambs. It wasn't. It was really pretty good, and why? One guess, and it isn't Angelina Jolie. Luckily, his latest, Training Day doesn't require him to work so hard.
Denzel plays Alonzo, an undercover narcotics agent working deep in the L.A. hood. Today he is breaking in a new potential member of his squad, Jake Hoyt, played by Ethan Hawke, hence the name, Training Day. As Alonzo takes him on a tour of pimps, rapists, drug dealers, and murderers, it soon becomes apparent to Jake that to work in this outfit, you have to be at least as much criminal as cop. Not only does Alonzo have his hands in every dirty deal that comes along, it slowly is revealed that he's in debt to the Russian mafia for over a million dollars. This makes him particularly dangerous and what starts as a roller coaster ride through the L.A. barrio, ends up as an all-out nightmare for young Jake.
The cool thing about Denzel is that even when he's playing it cool, slick, and full of attitude, you can still see a hint of Alonzo's desperation creep in. You have to look hard; Alonzo's doing a pretty good job of holding it all together, but it's there. He makes the perfect bad guy, because you really want to like him. More importantly, you want to believe him, even when you know you shouldn't. We're so used to trusting him that it's very unnerving to not be able to. Ethan Hawke is also very good in his role as an idealistic rookie cop who wants nothing more than to make detective. The rookie role is one that has been done to death, but Hawke gives it fresh life as he tries to figure out whether to side with Alonzo or to follow his training. Washington and Hawke are the only two actors with any real size to their roles, and they play off each other beautifully. The rest of the cast is filled out with a surprising number of cameos, from Scott Glenn to Snoop Dogg.
Being that this film is by Antoine Fuqua, the cinematic genius (I am being facetious) behind The Replacement Killers, I was expecting a lot more violence then we got. There was some shooting, and of course there's a climactic showdown, but mostly Fuqua keeps your interest through moments of extreme tension. Everything felt dangerous. Not like horror movie dangerous, but like real world, I don't ever want to go into a neighborhood like that dangerous. One drawback is that much of the movie felt angry, as well.
In the beginning, it feels more like a message movie than a dramatic thriller. There is lots of discussion of the streets, the nature of law enforcement and involvement, and the conditions people live under. It almost felt like the filmmakers were laying down an indictment of society for allowing all the corruption, all the violence, but it doesn't really go anywhere, and eventually I stopped thinking about it.
Training Day is a movie that doesn't pander, but doesn't pull its punches either. It gets a little confusing in parts, and starts out feeling a little preachy, but when its two stars - real, accomplished actors both - hit their stride, the film takes off running through a world most of us know of only hear about. As long as we can keep Alonzo from patrolling in my neighborhood, I'd say Training Day passes with flying colors. Grade: A-
Training Day is rated R for violence, language, and brief nudity.
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