Training Day (review)

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To Catch a Wolf

It takes a wolf to catch a wolf, says Los Angeles narcotics detective Alonzo Harris. All us little sheep need a wolf on our side to protect us from the other wolves. But shouldn’t we be afraid that “our” wolf might turn on us one day, and even if he doesn’t and keeps the dangerous wolves at bay, isn’t it only wolves who win in the end?

Much of our pop culture suddenly became irrelevant (perhaps only temporarily) on September 11 — conversely, some gained a new relevancy its creators could not have anticipated, such as Training Day. Original scheduled for release on September 21, Warner Bros. held it back for a few weeks, mostly for practical reasons — not being able to promote it properly, mainly, in a world that was glued to commercial-free TV news. We needed a break, too, before we got back to the grim dosing of cynical reality the film presents. But with the slightly cooler heads that the distance of time from September 11 gives us, we can much better appreciate the crux of the questions Training Day ponders: What is justice, what is the best way of achieving it, and what kind of people do we need to mete it out?
Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke: Snow Falling on Cedars, GATTACA) is an idealistic rookie cop, 19 months on the force and ready for a move up. He has one day to prove himself to Detective Sergeant Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington: The Hurricane, The Bone Collector): Is Jake prepared to take on the harsh inner-city subculture through which Alonzo moves, less as an officer of the law and more like, as Jake discovers, a tin-pot warlord, with his own ideas about what constitutes justice, swaggering through his fiefdom?

Yes, gentleman-actor Denzel Washington: swaggering. And loud, brash, emotionally explosive, in rare form, exuding a commanding onscreen power like we haven’t seen since perhaps Malcolm X. It’s partly down to David Ayer’s (U-571) smart, shades-of-gray script and partly down to the gusto with which Washington approaches this aggressively against-type role that Training Day achieves its brilliance. For we find ourselves see-sawing back and forth during Jake’s day-long audition, as Alonzo’s character slowly reveals itself, swinging from agreeing with Alonzo and his hard-nosed, rules-breaking pragmatism to siding with Jake’s insistence that playing fair is the answer. It certainly feels that justice is better served by having the two would-be rapists Jake trounces left to the mercies of their victim’s streetwise male relatives than our revolving-door penal system, right? “Ugly but necessary” is how Alonzo describes his extralegal methods, and he’s so charismatic that we almost get suckered in by him. We swerve between grudging respect for a man willing to do the world’s dirty work and shocking disbelief at how far he’s willing to go, and at just how much of a wolf he turns out to be in the end.

I suspect most of us have teetered, these last few weeks, between the white-hot rage of “Nuke the bastards!” and the calmer, more reasoned “Let’s root out the perpetrators, try them in a court of law, and prove to them that civilization will always triumph over barbarism.” And those two extremes are the viewpoints that Training Day wants us to consider. Happily, from a movie-lover’s perspective, the film offers no easy answers for its tough questions — it suffers from a few Hollywood cliches of the genre: a huge and unlikely coincidence, an ending that almost loses itself in fist fights and guns and car chases. But, like great film should, it leaves us with plenty of food for thought and fodder for debate.

Unhappily, from the perspective of the situation we find ourselves in these days, it doesn’t offer the easy answers we know intellectually don’t exist but so want to find anyway. Training Day leaves one of its cop characters on a precipitous, ambiguous ledge and another unambiguously transformed. Is the way of the wolf the path to take, the answer for our problems? Or does it only drag us all down into its savagery? And isn’t winning that way the same as losing?

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