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'Training Day'

Denzel is masterful as an L.A. detective who makes his own rules in 'Training Day'

Friday, October 05, 2001

By Ron Weiskind Post-Gazette Movie Editor

"Training Day" raises the best kinds of questions -- the ones to which we would rather not know the answers.

 
 
'Training Day'

RATING: R for brutal violence, pervasive language, drug content and brief nudity.

STARRING: Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke.

DIRECTOR: Antoine Fuqua.

WEB SITE: trainingday.
warnerbros.com

CRITIC'S CALL:

   
 

We would rather not know the down and dirty about crime on the streets, unless and until it affects us. We would rather not know about the methods used by police to deal with it. We would rather not know about how it can compromise them. We would rather not know whether that compromise is inevitable or perhaps even necessary.

"You have to get a little dirt on you," says Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington), a detective sergeant in the Los Angeles Police Department who works undercover on the narcotics beat in some of the city's most notorious neighborhoods.

But how much is "a little dirt"? Alonzo seems to make his own rules, and seems to delight in keeping everyone else off balance. That includes Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke), a tenderfoot from the 'burbs who wants to join Alonzo's elite squad in search of adventure and advancement and even to help make this a better world.

Dressed all in black and as flashy as a Rolex, Alonzo struts through the 'hood in his 1978 Monte Carlo low rider. He confiscates drugs from small-time users and browbeats a street dealer in a wheelchair (Snoop Dogg). He lets Jake break up an attempted rape but lets the perps go after working them over. He takes money hidden in a gangster's house while the man's wife (Macy Gray) screams bloody murder. But Alonzo has bigger fish to fry.

As his ride-along audition turns into an urban version of "Heart of Darkness," Jake watches Alonzo stretch ethical ambiguity to extremes that he never imagined. Is he testing Jake or taking advantage of him? Is he fighting fire with fire or obliterating the line between the law and the lawless? Is he righteous -- or just self-righteous?

The key moment comes after Alonzo springs the trap on his big fish, in a manner that leaves Jake deeply disturbed. This is the way it has to be, Alonzo tells him. Jake doesn't know whether to believe him, and neither do we. We don't want to know.

Screenwriter David Ayer and director Antoine Fuqua, a Pittsburgh native, decide to answer the questions they raise, but in so doing they turn the rest of "Training Day" into a more conventional cat-and-mouse game that feels less like real life than a movie gambit.

Even so, "Training Day" maintains a tension that isn't easily shaken, in large part because the filmmakers succeed in taking us to the streets.

Ayer grew up in South Central Los Angeles. Fuqua lived in both Homewood and the Hill District before moving from Pittsburgh. He was able to shoot "Training Day" in many of L.A.'s roughest neighborhoods, using local residents as extras and in bit parts. Fuqua makes us take notice of yet one more thing we would rather not know, what life is like in these places.

Fuqua uses a moving camera and the shiny veneer of surfaces to convey a sense of danger underneath the facade of appearances. Washington is mesmerizing, full of himself but as slippery as a sweaty hand in one of the most theatrical and ambiguous roles of his career. Hawke holds his own in a role that keeps his character at a disadvantage for most of the movie. Scott Glenn, Tom Berenger and Dr. Dre have key supporting roles.

The closer we get to the ending, the more coincidental and unlikely the action becomes. But the first half of the movie is so good, we would just as soon ignore the flaws.

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