Denzel Washington has been typecast as a good guy for most of his career. His soulful eyes and charming looks cry out for empathy; he exudes downtrodden honor like cheap perfume. He is the ultimate African-American actor: a black man that whites can love and identify with--a Sidney Poitier for the millenium. Washington's performance in Traning Day, however, makes me wish he had always played bad, because when he's bad he's outstanding.
In Training Day, Washington's character, Detective Alonzo Harris, is a dirty narcotics cop who takes a rookie (Ethan Hawke) under his wing. Harris picks and chooses his collars; busting when he feels like it and rarely arresting anyone but the biggest dogs. Even then, there has to be a good reason for someone to go down. Harris smoothly moves in and out of various roles; training officer, openly dirty cop, high-roller in the legal world. The key aspect to Harris' character is that he truly believes that he is a god. You see this when he calmly crosses the street without looking for oncoming traffic as cars screech to a halt to avoid crunching him, a shit-eating grin on his face the entire time.
Hawke plays the rookie naturally. If Harris wants him to smoke PCP, he smokes it with a grin on his face, anger bubbling just beneath the surface. While Washington plays the dirty cop to the extreme, with great finesse, Hawke's character falls a bit flat due to the way he is written. His character is just too pat; he is always moral, always vaguely questioning Harris' behavior. It would have been better if he slipped just once. In a money "exchange" scene, when Harris offers him a quarter of a million dollars, he doesn't even appear to be mildly tempted. All good and all bad characters can be entertaining, and even Harris has moments of tenderness, where just a bit of his old self shines through, but the rookie is just a red herring in a pristine white hat.
Although the entire movie revolves around careful characterization, there is actually a plot that cleverly emerges near the end of the movie. It would spoil the movie to divulge it, but let's just say that all of Harris' activities with the rookie were never spontaneous. Harris engages in a game of chess, sliding his pieces into place for an ambush at the end. When the pieces fall into place the entire movie becomes more than just a chronicle of bad men doing bad things; Harris is almost a modern MacBeth, a tragic hero of sorts. One can't help but feel a bit of empathy for a guy who must have begun his career with the highest moral character only to be tempted away from that pearly path by a few million greenbacks and an ego boost. Yet he is fascinating to watch, and I caught myself thinking at one point--"So what? So he's stealing from drug dealers, murderers. Who cares?" You might wonder the same thing, and these moral questions add depth to the film.
Training Day is adeptly directed, reasonably well-written, and just shocking enough to maintain interest. It's worth the DVD rental.
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