A flashy, cool and supremely charismatic performance by Denzel Washington serves as a continuous flashpoint for “Training Day,” a tough, confrontational cop picture that further sullies the reputation of the LAPD, if such a thing is possible. Stylish and entertaining enough to serve as a quite presentable mainstream-type Hollywood studio entry at the Venice and Toronto film festivals, this ominously atmospheric study of police corruption dangles danger and sinister motives at every turn. It also offers enough rough action, edgy behavior and violence-laden titillation to be a muscular B.O. performer for Warner Bros. upon commercial release Sept. 21.
A well-made, foul-mouthed and voyeuristic walk on the wild side with a dazzingly corrupt narcotics detective who tries to blackmail a new department recruit onto his dirty team in one day, pic is basically the contempo equivalent — in quality and tone — of something like “To Live and Die in L.A.” a generation ago. Well-tooled but not over-cranked, third feature by former video wiz Antoine Fuqua resonates best when it sticks to elaborating the tensions and provocations constantly being provoked in David Ayer’s lively script by Washington’s detective sergeant Alonzo Harris, mainly with greenhorn cop Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke), but also with everyone else who crosses his path.
Intimidating, prone to braggadocio and not easily impressed with anyone else, Alonzo presents himself as the ultimate street-smart dick, a dude who seems to know all the town’s small-time dealers personally, is as much at home with L.A.’s top power brokers as he is with homies and bad-asses, and boasts of being committed to bagging the big game in the drug trade. As he takes his young white charge on his rounds in his souped-up black Monte Carlo, he changes moods and tactics as quickly as he might a radio dial, scaring, threatening, ridiculing and challenging the rookie with taunts and situations that Jake will have to be able to handle by himself if he is lucky enough to become the sixth man on Alonzo’s elite narcotics squad.
Alonzo cajoles the kid into smoking some PCP he’s snatched from some college students, advising his prospective partner that narcs need to know what they’re dealing with first-hand. Once Jake’s wiped beyond repair, Alonzo begins plying him with beer while expressing his philosophy that humanity is made up of sheep and wolves, and that when it comes to their job, “You gotta be a wolf to catch a wolf.”
Along the way, Alonzo stops in to see an apparent friend and old-time dealer Roger (Scott Glenn), while Jake, to Alonzo’s evident disdain, leaps from the car to beat up two thugs who are on the verge of raping a Hispanic teenage girl in an alley; dealing with such low-lifes is apparently beneath Alonzo, who subsequently sends Jake to apprehend a wheelchair-bound two-bit dealer (Snoop Dogg) for info about a heavyweight.
Vaguely appalled but still in thrall to his tour guide to L.A.’s rings of hell, Jake passes enough tests for Alonzo to take him to the dreaded “jungle,” a veritable gangbanger theme park of a neighborhood where the older man’s lady (Charlotte Ayanna) and one of his four sons live. For a complete change of pace, they then head to an upscale restaurant, where Alonzo reassures three top city lawmen that he can handle a bind he’s gotten into with the Russian mafia in Vegas.
From here on, it’s all about Alonzo’s long-suspected corruption and the trap he’s been laying for Jake all along. Calling in his five narc squad cohorts, Alonzo drags the kid along on a shocking hit he executes in order to quickly bag the money he needs to pay off the Russkies, and blackmails Jake into joining his criminal conspiracy by promising to stick him with a murder rap (with PCP in his veins, no less) if he doesn’t. Now his boss’ bitch after a few short hours with him, Jake seemingly reaches hell’s nether regions when Alonzo strands him in a particularly vile drug den, from which only the most far-fetched coincidence can possibly spring him.
Drama plays out like a carefully designed morality tale in which the upright hero must be dragged through the most ghastly conditions, be exposed to the most venal influences and fight powerful temptations to boot, all while the audience can vicariously get off on a whirlwind tour of places few would actually want to visit in person. Ayer’s punchy writing and Fuqua’s vibrant direction with agreeably florid embellishments make it all undeniably engaging, even when the action becomes more than a bit implausible.
But it’s the way Washington socks over his role that makes the picture genuinely worth seeing. He seems to relish playing a real bad guy for once, although one that’s exceptionally smart and slow to show his true colors. Thesp puts terrific spins on his goading, manipulative lines in fashioning a character who has been corrupted absolutely and is anxious to find fresh candidates to join his club.
For his part, Hawke — for the second time this year, after his hilarious turn in Richard Linklater’s low-budget Sundance entry “Tape” — shows signs of coming to new life as a screen actor after somnolent turns in the likes of “Snow Falling on Cedars.” With both actor and character threatening to seem out of their leagues at first, both begin rising to the occasion, and Hawke adds feisty and cunning flourishes to his part that allow him to respectably hold his own under formidable circumstances. Glenn is unusually spirited in his couple of scenes, and many of the supporting thesps make vivid impressions in what are mostly single scene opportunities.
Craft contributions are very sharp, particularly Mauro Fiore’s richly expressive lensing, Conrad Buff’s taut cutting and Marc Mancina’s smoothly ominous score.