Part of the amazement with Denzel Washington's portrayal of L.A.P.D. Detective Alonzo Harris in "Training Day" is in trying to determine if his bad-guy antics are really bad, or if he is truly an honest cop training his young recruit in street smarts.
Those familiar with Washington's other roles as larger-than-life historical figure ("Malcolm X"), wrongly accused man ("The Hurricane") or level-headed man of honor ("Crimson Tide") will be stunned at his hard-core role as an undercover narc detective.
We are used to seeing the Academy Award-winning Washington ("Glory") as a handsome, smooth, polished good guy. We usually see his characters struggle and then rise to whatever occasion. In this film, he makes the kind of pivotal about-face that all actors must in order to stretch their craft and not become stereotyped.
The film is a masterpiece study of naivety and ruthlessness, tough choices and how much our lives can change in a day. The action is contained in one life-changing day for both Detective Alonzo Harris (Washington) and his new recruit, Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke – "Snow Falling on Cedars," "Great Expectations"). Hoyt is a recent transfer to the narc division. His one "training day" is a "grueling, survival-of-the-fittest day" where he must prove himself worthy and capable enough to survive in Harris's legendary narc unit. Hoyt wants in badly. He wants to avoid the drudgery of less-exciting police assignments.
Both men will undergo changes that are the essence of what human dilemma and fine acting are all about. We watch the naive Hoyt do battle with his conscience, trying to determine which lines he can cross and still maintain his principles. We watch Harris taunt, humiliate and, yes, educate his new recruit in the ways of the streets in a dirty, violent world of criminals. And we figure out soon enough whether Harris is a good cop or a bad cop. The director, Antoine Fuqua, had both actors meet with real-life gang bangers and drug dealers to prepare for their roles.
National film reviewers are talking of an Academy Award-worthy performance in Washington's narc detective. I agree. Washington is brilliantly bad. His lightning-speed changes in demeanor are a training ground for any film student. But the supporting cast deserves as many kudos. There are a half dozen very notable minor roles that add fiber to the realism of this seedy world.
Hawke's Hoyt takes a journey that no one should be made to face in a single day. He changes moment by moment and delivers a performance worthy of any number of awards. Director Fuqua ("The Replacement Killers") takes us to some ugly places in the human psyche and in the City of Angels. The film shows a less-than-beautiful side of Los Angeles, a town epitomized by its Beverly Hills and Malibu Beach images.
Part of the film's unsettling grittiness and realism is that Fuqua shot on location in L.A. neighborhoods that are notoriously dangerous. These are not sets. The film crew ventured deep into the heart of South Central, Crenshaw, Watts, Inglewood, Rampart, Echo Park and the infamous Imperial Courts housing project. Despite being advised that it was too much of a safety risk to film in Imperial Courts, the film makers shot there anyway. They were embraced by the community and used many of the residents as extras.
"Training Day" is a large cut above the usual cops and robbers/good guy-bad guy screenplay. David Ayer ("U-571") has written a screenplay with just the right amount of twists and turns to keep you on the edge of your seat. Ayer, who grew up in some of the areas where the film was shot, has hit home with a hard reality film that balances originality and the expected fare in today's action/drama flick.
The production crew includes Grammy-winning composer Mark Mancina ("Speed," "The Lion King"), director of photography Mauro Fiore ("Driven"), production designer Naomi Shohan ("Sweet November," "American Beauty"), costume designer Michele Michel ("Bread and Roses") and Oscar-winning editor Conrad Buff ("Titanic," "Terminator 2: Judgment Day").
"Training Day," a Warner Bros. picture in association with Village Roadshow Pictures and NPV Entertainment, is rated R for brutal violence, pervasive language, drug content and brief nudity. It starts Thursday at Market Square East.
Editor's note: Davida Siwisa James is a writer and public relations professional. A long-time resident of St. Thomas, she now lives in Los Angeles.