Saturday 25 October 2014

Movie Review: Training Day (2001)

A pounding police thriller, Training Day dives into the dark cesspool where criminals and detectives all begin to look alike. The film is a polished, high energy character study, with an enthralling central performance by Denzel Washington.

Los Angeles police officer Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) is taking the initial steps towards becoming a detective on the anti-narcotics squad. Paired with veteran detective Alonzo Harris (Washington), Jake embarks on his first day of training as a passenger in Alonzo's car, cruising the streets of LA on the lookout for criminal activity. Alonzo knows his way around the streets and gives Jake a constant stream of advice about survival skills and what a real life of fighting crime is all about. But Jake quickly learns that Alonzo operates way outside normal procedures. Before the morning is out, Alonzo forces Jake to smoke drugs, and after Jake intervenes to disrupt a street rape, he allows the potential rapists to walk away.

Alonzo also has a personal agenda for the day. He has upset some Russian mobsters and needs to raise a million dollars by midnight to avoid their wrath. Alonzo steals cash from a drug dealer named Sandman, and uses the money to pay off his police superiors (known as the Three Wise Men) in exchange for receiving the go-ahead to raid and shake-down master criminal Roger (Scott Glenn). That operation goes badly in many different ways, creating a huge rift between Jake and Alonzo. Before the end of the day Jake will need to learn quickly in order to stay alive and decide on what kind of future he wants.

Directed by Antoine Fuqua and written by David Ayer, Training Day walks along the blurred line between right and wrong and finds plenty of dead bodies. Alonzo inhabits a ruthless world of powerful dealers and brutal gangsters, and has long since decided that no amount of proper policing will make an iota of difference. So he has adopted more effective and less traditional methods, stretching the definition of his badge to act as judge, jury and executioner in addition to law officer. The results justify the means in his mind, and no one really seems to care, because all others on the side of the law are at least as corrupt.

Until Jake comes along. With an outsider's view Jake is horrified by Alonzo's methods, but initially accepting that maybe this is what it takes to fight drugs on the front lines. But Jake has caught Alonzo on a really challenging day, and Alonzo has plans to use the naive Jake in his elaborate scheme to extricates himself from the target hairs of the Russian mob. Jake's education will proceed at fast-forward, his training day packed with a lifetime's worth of incidents. He will need to learn quickly or die trying.

Filmed on location is some of the worst neighbourhoods in Los Angeles, Training Day has the surreal look of a decaying social landscape. Fuqua and cinematographer Mauro Fiore recall the downtrodden feel of 1970s crime movies, with Alonzo cruising through gritty neighbourhoods dominated by desperation, unemployment and gang members. It does not need to be said: the idea that justice will ever penetrate into this world is visually incongruous.

Denzel Washington became the second black man (after Sidney Poitier) to win the Best Actor Academy Award. Washington creates in Alonzo Harris a smooth talking and supremely confident puppet master, convinced that he can talk his way into any situation and talk his way out of any problem. And when the time for talking is done, he does not hesitate to whip out the guns to emphasize his demands. Washington is appropriately larger than life, effortless and exhausting, a police officer so far past the line that he forgot the line even exists.

Ethan Hawke provides the perfect foil as Jake Hoyt, an unspoiled idealist exposed head-on to Alonzo's crazy world. The supporting cast also includes Tom Berenger in one scene as a member of the Three Wise Men, and Eva Mendes as Alonzo's mistress.

Packed with the power, fury and conviction of two men committed to their conflicting beliefs, Training Day is one intense inauguration.

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