It has been proved time and time again: There”s nothing more fun than an over-the-top bad guy. Fine acting, character development, well crafted plots I guess those are important too, but nothing matches the excitement, fear and amusement of a clever, ruthless and morally questionable character. In “Training Day,” Denzel Washington plays Alonzo Harris, the ultimate corrupt cop. The head of an elite narcotics squad, Alonzo has unlimited power and influence, impunity from the law and a customized 1978 Monte Carlo, complete with hydraulics.
Ethan Hawke plays Jake Hoyt, a rookie cop who is given a chance to be in Alonzo”s unit, which he considers to be a jumping off point for his career, since members of the unit are given the most lucrative and sought after detective positions. The only problem is that to pass his “audition” and get into Alonzo”s unit, Jake has to compromise just about every principle in the book. Within a few minutes of meeting him, Alonzo forces Jake to smoke PCP laced pot, because if he turned it down on the street, he”d be dead. At first, Jake thinks that his superior”s bizarre behavior and disregard for the law is a test to see what Jake is capable of, but he slowly realizes that this is the real Alonzo.
Washington steals the show as Alonzo, sporting diamonds and gold over black leather, flashing a smile one minute and pulling a gun the next. A markedly different role for Washington (think “Remember the Titans”), he plays the dirty cop as if he was born for the role. He seems to fill up the screen as he cruises through the roughest neighborhoods, shaking down the drug dealers and intimidating the people like a feudal lord. His attitude toward the streets is that if you don”t intimidate them, they”ll see the weakness and get the better of you. His philosophy of winning the battle from the inside is explained to Jake: “You have to decide if you”re a sheep or a wolf, if you want to go to the grave or if you want to go home.”
Every motion, every smile (or sneer) and every comment from Washington is at the same time appealing and repulsive. Despite all of his flaws and the fact that he is sometimes just downright evil, you want to like him … for a while. Eventually, we begin to see how out of control he really is in his fantasy world of power.
This is also the point where the film begins to lose its otherwise gritty and realistic edge, for although the first section of the film is sharp and fast-paced, the last few minutes feel a little more cartoon-like, and although there is a satisfying ending, it loses something as Alonzo descends into the caricature realm of Nicholson”s Joker or Brick Top.
Hawke gives a fine performance as the honest cop trying to walk the tightrope between the law and success, all while trying to save his soul. His pact with Alonzo is basically a pact with the devil: If he gives Alonzo a year or two on the squad, he can get “the keys to the kingdom,” and he conveys with subtlety the sense of uncertainty that comes along with the choices that he must make. As his fellow members of the squad all split up money from a shakedown, he hesitatingly turns his down, saying “No … no, right?” with all the conviction of a elementary school kid resisting peer pressure.
The atmosphere of the film is unusually genuine, partly due to the fact that many of the scenes on the streets were actually filmed in the neighborhoods in which they were supposed to take place, despite the objections of the studio on account of safety issues. One has to pity the kid delivering the mocha lattes as he tries to walk the same gauntlet that Alonzo strolls down so easily.