Seeing Denzel Washington in Safe House last week, I found myself longing for the Denzel Washington I remember in Training Day. For a time, after he won the Academy Award for playing the inherently wicked Detective Alonzo Harris, I couldn’t bring myself to agree with the decision. This was a cop film, an action thriller, and Washington was just playing a familiar villain. I didn’t see what was so special about his performance at the time. But I have seen Training Day a half dozen times since then and in each viewing Washington’s performance gets richer and more compelling. And watching him sleepwalk through a variation of the Harris role in Safe House, it only strengthens Training Day as a whole.
The film works like a jigsaw puzzle Harris is putting together. His most important piece is Jake Hoyt, an idealistic young detective played by Ethan Hawke. Jake plays by the rules, and he sees an opportunity to join forces with Harris as a chance to better his career and become a big shot. He wants to make a better life for his family, his wife and newborn daughter. Alonzo Harris is somewhat of a legendary detective in Los Angeles, and Jake seems overmatched by him from the moment he walks into the diner to begin his first day.
From the moment Washington appears on screen as Harris, dressed in black leather and a skull cap, it immediately becomes his film. Alonzo Harris is a dominating personality. His “office” is a confiscated black Impala with hydraulics he cruises around in through the toughest streets of the city. Alonzo “keeps it real” and plans on showing Jake the ropes through the school of hard knocks. He spits out rhetoric about the street faster than Jake can process. Alonzo takes Jake on a small-time drug bust that appears at first to be nothing more than a display of his power, threatening some college students and snatching up the weed they just bought. The bust seems arbitrary enough, but when Alonzo forces Jake to smoke the weed it’s clear there is more going on. Jake refuses until Alonzo stops his car in an intersection and forces him at gunpoint to partake. “If I was a drug dealer,” he tells Jake, “you’d be dead.” It’s only after Jake smokes the weed that Alonzo tells him it was laced with PCP.
When Jake spots a young girl being raped in an alley, he jumps out of the car and instinctively apprehends the two men. Alonzo, clearly annoyed, sadistically abuses the two men and lets them go despite Jake’s objections. At first, this scene feels like just another moment in a day growing more hectic with every turn; but it is apparent that Alonzo has a plan and a schedule and these two thugs raping this girl were not part of said plan. He doesn’t have time to take care of the punks, he has things to do. Jake is helplessly pulled into Alonzo’s web as they visit an old informant friend (Scott Glenn), bust a crack dealer (Snoop Dogg), stop off to see what appears to be Alonzo’s second family, and visit a home in South Central Los Angeles that dissolves into a shootout with local gang members. Everything is a piece in Alonzo’s puzzle.
The third act unfolds into chaos as Alonzo’s plan comes to fruition. The reveal ties everything together brilliantly and raises the film to another level. Jake finds himself in a precarious situation, and his life is spared by a coincidence that may seem a bit much. But the coincidence is key for the film to work. Characters must undergo transformation of some sort for a film to work, and Ethan Hawke’s role evolves from a wide-eyed newbie to a hardened, beaten, desperate cop. Hawke’s Supporting Actor nomination was well deserved. Alonzo’s evolution is more subtle – though very few things are in Training Day – but it is there. He claims to own the streets, but his ownership is a façade put in place by the abuse of his badge. People in the community don’t necessarily fear Alonzo; they avoid him.
On the surface, Training Day is a crime drama about an evil cop; but it becomes so much more than an action thriller. It is about a plan, an intricate series of details that come together in a rousing final act. The power of Denzel Washington’s performance is undeniable from this distance; he absolutely owns the picture. It’s a shame a poor performance makes one long for his acting in Training Day. Or maybe it isn’t, maybe it’s that much more of a testament to the energy of this film.