I’ve officially seen Training Day, a movie that’s sat on my Netflix queue for over two years (and ironically enough, I saw it on premium cable). Training Day is the film Denzel Washington won Best Actor for, making it the first time an African-American actor won an Oscar for a film directed by an African-American. And yet, most people besmirch this film citing that Washington only won the Oscar for “being black” (aka the Halle Berry Oscar). Now, I’m not saying Washington didn’t deserve the win, (although Russell Crowe might disagree with me) I’ll get into my explanation on that in a bit. Suffice it to say this movie kicked ass! Washington is dominating throughout and everything about the film is compelling, forcing you to keep watching. It just makes me sad that director Antoine Fuqua hasn’t made a film to rival this (no King Arthur doesn’t count).
Rookie cop Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) starts his first day in narcotics under the tutelage of Detective Alonzo Harris (Washington). Seeing this as a step up to bigger and better things Hoyt is prepared to do anything that Harris tells him to. In the course of the day Hoyt sees how mad with power Harris has become, and ultimately where the numerous shades of gray are in the struggle for justice.
From the minute Jake tells Alonzo “I will do anything you want me to do” the movie forces him to question where the line is. Director Fuqua, helped by a strong script by David Ayers, questions the concepts of morality, ethics, the sense of community, police corruption, and the struggle to gain a foothold in the workplace through a 24 hour span of time. There’s been many cop films that focus on police corruption, and Training Day really isn’t any different (with Washington paying homage to disgraced cop Rafael Perez). Where the film shines is what police corruption ultimately does to a community.
The relationship between Jake and Alonzo is built on bullying with Alonzo constantly threatening Jake with demotion (and as the film progresses, jail time). Jake not only wants to move up the ranks, but he wants to prove his masculinity and impress his superior. Various gang members and other cops question Jake’s manliness and various characters of little consequence tell Jake “you’re a rookie aren’t you.” They’ve seen what corrupt police look like, and find Jake’s quiet demeanor and genuine attempts to help them, as signs of weakness. They’re no longer used to kindness from cops yet Jake doesn’t realize that adding to his fear of being liked. What are marks of honor in the cop world are seen as repugnant and reprehensible to Jake. He saves a girl from being raped and Alonzo refuses to arrest the men because he feels street justice will take care of them. When Alonzo murders a man and tells Jake he’ll take the rap for shooting him (because the other officers will back him up), it’s not a mark of being “one of the boys” but the realization that he’ll be framed and forever be blackmailed by his superior. It’s like Mean Girls but with cops!
EVERYTHING becomes a test of Jake’s will and beliefs. From the film’s opening minutes we understand that Jake is being tested, this is his “training day” after all (Hey wonder where they got that title?). Jake is constantly on edge, he doesn’t know how to act and Alonzo plays on this fear. After said murder he tells Jake after this “no one will ever ask you to pull the trigger if you don’t want to.” This implies that once Jake gets over this murder he’ll be okay with killing, and also that this final test will prove his loyalty.
The questions of loyalty, and the “ends justify the means” element is what I found so fascinating about the film. It’s not just about a corrupt cop, it’s about a rookie discovering the way the system works. Jake is one of those who desperately wants to save the world and take the bad guys off the streets. Alonzo says that’s how he used to feel about being a cop before he realized the reality. He finds Jake’s nature laughable and the opening scenes of the movie have nothing to do with police work emphasizing how boring and mundane the job is. There’s a fantastic speech Alonzo makes that pretty much tells you A) Who he is and B) The theme of the movie. Unfortunately, YouTube doesn’t have a clip so I’ll have to summarize.
His views are essentially that “to protect the sheep you gotta catch the wolf, and it takes a wolf to catch a wolf.” Street justice allows for the majority of humanity to wipe themselves out, and ultimately it produces more results than the courts. The greater good is what should be focused on and not the few petty criminals, but the root of all evil. It’s been tested and failed yet Alonzo believes in this so firmly. Alonzo tells Jake “keep your mouth shut and your eyes open” commanding him to take in what he sees, learn from it, but ultimately keep it quiet.
Much of his views blossom from the community that’s depicted. The film isn’t set in the bright, Disneyland world of Los Angeles but the tough, gang-riddled streets where a cop easily stands out. The film looks at how the bigger picture mentality plays out in these gang communities where respect and loyalty are praised highly and an “eye for an eye” holds true. When Alonzo goes through the worst part of town, called “The Jungle,” the movie intersperses clips of children playing amongst the gangsters. The emphasis being that children do grow up here, some succeed and some fall into the same tropes as the rest of the community. Much like Jake, it’s up to them to decide how they plan to live their lives; either break the cycle of violence or fall into it.
This is a great time to get into the acting of the film. Ethan Hawke is great, it’s probably one of his strongest roles in the 2000s I’ve seen from him. He’s got a great everyman quality and desperately wants to be Superman to these people. The true stand-out though is Washington. On the surface I immediately kept thinking of Jay Pharaoh from Saturday Night Live who does a KILLER impression of Washington…for your viewing pleasure:
Funny huh? I mentioned above the flak Washington’s gotten for this role. That he essentially plays a black man and the Academy fell back on playing the race card. I’m generally one of those who believes the Oscars get it wrong a lot (don’t even get me started on their lack of representation in female directing until recently, the issues with the Best Actress vs. Best Supporting and the “You’re Gonna Die Soon…Here’s an Oscar” trope). Washington was one of the first African-American actors to win an Oscar while being directed by an African-American…it took all the way up to 2001 for this to happen (see what I mean?). I don’t believe he won based solely on race, I think he fell into the trope of “You played outside your preconceived type, here’s an Oscar.” It’s pretty much the male equivalent of playing ugly in a movie or “full retard” as Tropic Thunder put it. Washington is predominantly known for playing heroes, crusaders, the man played Malcolm X for crying out loud. To have him play a corrupt cop who spouts the N-word like it’s “Hey there…” that’s definitely going outside his comfort zone. So yes, I do believe he won based on assumptions but not for race. Washington has said playing Alonzo Harris was his best role and apparently he liked it enough to kind of recreate it for American Gangster.
Alonzo is a well-developed and utterly despicable character. Not only does he browbeat Jake for over two hours, he also uses his own child as leverage in a gun fight. That scene is the most tension I’ve ever felt for a movie. You have Jake and Alonzo at odds with Alonzo’s young son in the middle. Jake is struggling to find a way to subdue Alonzo without hitting Jake, and Alonzo is reassuring the boy in Spanish to stay there! It’s so tense and once characters all start moving in a whirl you’re waiting to hear a gunshot! Alonzo becomes part of the machine by the film’s end, reiterating to Jake that the way of the world is “It’s not what you know, it’s what you can prove.” The final stand-off is the most well-known facet of the movie so here it is (I do have a dream of standing on a roof screaming “King Kong ain’t got nothing on me” now that I’ve seen this):
In the end Alonzo ends how he thought Jake would, having his obituary read glorifying his exploits. Proving the adage mentioned above and really I don’t think much has changed in the corruption game since this movie’s release. Training Day is a hard-hitting, gritty film that’s worth the two-hour runtime. It’s probably my favorite Washington performance and hey…that’s Fran Kranz in a cameo (have you seen Cabin in the Woods yet?)!
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.