Training Day (Antione Fuqua, 2001)
[originally posted 5Nov2001]
Fuqua, who has directed scores of music videos and made his big-screen debut with the impressive Chow Yun-Fat vehicle The Replacement Killers (1998), offers up his most recent flick, Training Day. The movie takes us through the first day on the undercover narcotics squad of LAPD officer Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke), who’s riding along with the head of the unit, Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington). It doesn’t take too long before Hoyt realizes that the life of an undercover officer ain’t what gets taught at the police academy.
As should be obvious, comparisons to Dennis Hopper’s brilliant 1988 film Colors are inevitable, and they’re warranted. Screenwriter David Ayer (U-571, The Fast and the Furious) had to realize while writing this that the comparisons were going to happen, and there are few films, especially cop films, that won’t suffer in comparison. Ayer uses the one-day timeframe as one of the differences between the two films; he also adds a couple of subplots, some that work, some that don’t. But like Colors, the true basis of the film is an exploration of the personalities of the two main characters, how they conflict, and how the older cop (Washington, in this case, playing the same role Robert Duvall did in the earlier movie) has to combine the wisdom of the law officer with the street sensibility of the thug in order to survive from day to day, much less actually get anything done.
While Hawke and Washington don’t have the same chemistry as Duvall and Penn, Training Day doesn’t hit you over the head with its plot quite as hard as Colors did. It also avoids the morality-tale mentality until the last twenty minutes or so of the film (one wonders, idly, if the film had a different ending originally and got a re-shoot after test-marketing). Alonzo Harris is a bad guy, pure and simple (and it’s refreshing to see Denzel Washington play someone who’s not squeaky-clean), but that doesn’t make him any less competent at his job, or any less believable when dispensing various bits of homily on how to survive as an undercover narcotics officer. It also makes the first portion of the film’s climax (surprisingly long and surprisingly interest-holding) that much more unexpected when it finally does occur.
And herein, actually, is the one place the film really screws up. Training Day‘s climax opens with one hell of a large coincidence which could have been derailed at any one of a number of places along the way, and some of the characters in the film have to slip out of character at times in order for the coincidence to take shape (note that this is unnoticeable until the event in question happens, but it leaves a slightly sour aftertaste). A little rewriting earlier in the film might have solved this problem.
One last note of comparison between the two is in the uniformly high quality of the supporting casts in both films. In Training Day, Fuqua gives us a number of folks who are starting to pop up in a lot of supporting roles these days, from the surprisingly talented Snoop Dogg to the big-screen debut of Macy Gray (with better hair than usual, and thus unrecognizable). Special attention should be paid to Eva Mendes as Denzel’s main squeeze and Cliff Curtis (last seen by a wide audience torturing Mark Wahlberg in Three Kings) as one of his top informants. Curtis, especially, is on his way up in the world, and fast.
Overall, there are enough errors in Training Day to still make Colors the better film, but this was one fine shot at the title. After viewing, let it sink in for a while, as its full measure takes a while and some reflection to settle in. *** 1/2