Much to my dismay, I’ve realized that I am a terrible judge of parties. I worry about stuff. Stupid stuff. All the stuff, really. My opinion is so biased that I actually have nothing meaningful to share, but this: I had a really great time. It was a delight to see so many great folks. It’s really hard to buy iced cream sandwiches in St. Paul. Never would’ve guessed.
A piecemeal film made from choice cuts, Training Day is a sporadic story that does nothing so well as it keeps you on your guard. There are some pieces of the traditional police drama, some gritty crime story elements and a bit of a morality play. Instead of being a strictly realistic look into modern urban crime with a message told through cinematic voice, Antoine Fuqua displays select treatments of the stylish cinematography he used in The Replacement Killers to intrigue us, get us curious and keep us looking closely. Just like Replacement Killers, though, I don’t think the shoot-out in this movie is particularly well-described. The script by David Ayer is the real hodgepodge in that it switches realism on and off whenever necessary, giving us tense moments of almost-violence and occassional performances of action movie cops bravely sprawled on the hood of a car. We get morally ambiguous characters who are startling and difficult to gauge, but we also get the rookie cop with the at-home wife and infant child. This gives the film it’s unpredictable back-and-forth, it’s Good Cop/Bad Cop routine, which successfully twists itself into a nice sustained tension.
The morality play about cops and ethics never really manifests in the narrative. Characters discuss it outright, but only once does a narrative trick really interrupt the actions of the characters. A wonderful call-back involving a good deed by Ethan Hawke’s (stoned) rookie cop is the most shining moment of narrative interference, especially since it allows the climax of the movie to take place, rather than manufacturing the climax outright.
There’s a terrific role here for Ethan Hawke (Jake Hoyt), wherein he is not required to be greasy and cute nor rebellious and sweet. He does make use of his young face here, though. He’s a convincing uniformed policeman with a one-day shot at something more heroic. He’s given a bit of the physical action to do, and between him and Fuqua it avoids looking wholly unrealistic. Comparing his T.J. Hooker stunt with his time spent humping through the snow in A Midnight Clear, this might be Hawke’s most physical role. For most of the movie, Hawke’s job is to provoke speeches from his detective-teacher and then be persuaded. It’s not flashy, sexy work but Hawke wraps himself up in it, and so do we.
Denzel Washington got himself an Academy Award for his performance as Detective Alonzo Harris, and I think he earned it, but not the way I thought he had. Such a juicy and potentially unflattering role sometimes involves a certain risk for a big leading actor like Washington. I assumed he was recognized for delivering another par performance despite the risk. He’d already done this, though, with Devil in a Blue Dress. What I think makes Washington’s performance so wonderful is how much he did when so little could have sufficed. Yes, less is sometimes more. Here, however, Washington could’ve just used the twists in the script and his usual charisma to sell his character. Instead, he demonstrates all sorts of moxie to create a character that’s offensive and charming, challenging and rewarding, fatherly and fearsome. Like Kenneth Branaugh in Conspiracy, Washington manipulates all sorts of characters during the film, but he also gets an honest shot at screwing with us in the audience, since we want to like a cop more than we want to like a warmonger. Alonzo Harris does all sorts of terrible things all throughout this movie. It’s Washington’s skill that makes his change from mentor to villain seem to be gradually revealed.
I’m not really happy with the end of Training Day. I suppose Alonzo gets a suitably ugly ending wherein his consequences reward his actions, but I would’ve preferred something which took better advantage of the story’s one-day presentation. Hawke’s Officer Hoyt gets that sort of ending, but without any of the answers I think we need to wrap up the crime story. Sure, the whole movie was ugly and ambiguous, but I hoped the structure of the story would lead to a stronger resolution.