It's not as if Denzel Washington has anything left to prove regarding his talent as a film actor. During his TV days, if he was in a scene on St. Elsewhere, all eyes were on him. When he starred in Malcolm X, he was Malcolm X. Philadelphia? Powerful. Devil in a Blue Dress? He could have easily carried a series based on that character. Even in The Bone Collector, a film in which he couldn't move, just his facial expressions were the high points of the film.
And now here he goes again, taking on a role completely against type. But then does he actually have a type? In Training Day, he's Detective Sergeant Alonzo Harris, a veteran undercover narcotics cop showing the ropes to Ethan Hawke's Jake Hoyt, all eager and confident on his first day on the job. Ready for a bit of understatement? For Jake, things don't go as planned.
Washington plays his Alonzo as quiet and mysterious, the kind of teacher who says, "Watch me and do exactly as I do," without explaining anything. But in the time it takes for him or his new student to breathe in and out, Alonzo could be screaming, running after a criminal, putting his gun -- itchy trigger finger attached -- to someone's head, or playing out any other sort of behavior that is definitely not quiet. And before much more time passes, he's even seen to be an introspective sort.
What's intriguing, for Jake, as well as for anyone in the audience watching the film, is that everyone's going to be wondering, "Who the hell is this guy?"
Not too much time passes before it's revealed exactly who and what he is. He's a cop on a power trip, swaggering his way around, pushing people he knows he can push, coercing fellow officers (well, at least the unwitting Jake) to do things that really shouldn't be done by cops, possibly believing he's much more important and powerful than he really is.
Bottom line: He deals with wrongdoers as they need to be dealt with. But the question attached is just how much of a wrongdoer he is himself. And this has very little to do with the fact that he's drinking a beer while tooling down the street -- on duty -- in his unmarked car.
This is one powerhouse performance by Washington, who never-- not even for a second -- lets go of the intensity that pervades his character. Is Alonzo a bad cop? Maybe, and more of that question is answered deeper into the film, when we start to meet some of his other cop buddies. But that question is in the mind of his young protege almost from the get-go, from the moment Alonzo practically forces him to take a taste of the "marijuana" they've grabbed, guns drawn, from a couple of frightened kids. Alonzo's logic is that to be a good narcotics officer, you've got to know all about the narcotics, you've got to know what they do to your head. Again, Jake wonders who this guy is.
But that little deed is nothing compared to the places Alonzo brings him or the deeds he watches Alonzo do. Under the taut direction of Antoine Fuqua, whose first film was the edgy but flawed The Replacement Killers, things go out of control for the control-loving Jake very early on, then progressively spin faster and faster in a downward spiral. Hawke brings a nice combination of understatement, frustration and eventually desperation to the part when he realizes that this might not have been the best day to start a new job, at least not with this guy.
The script piles on complications in areas of non-police activities involving Alonzo, as well as his ever-changing relationships with his supposed pals in the 'hood.
If it's not clear at this point, Training Day is not one of those typical cop buddy films. It's about a relationship between two cops that's fraught with problems almost from the minute they meet. As seen mostly through the eyes of the young, green cop, it's a frightening vision of what it's like to be on the dirty streets of Los Angeles, very much out of your element, with only the skill of thinking on your feet and a load of dumb luck to get you through.
There's not much space between the times that things get mean and ugly here. And with a couple of nifty plot twists near the end -- one of which nicely ties into an incident near the beginning -- this is a film that anyone who enjoys a couple hours of unnerving adrenaline will get a big charge out of.