What could be more ominous than a movie about a black cop and a white cop? All the combinations are worn too smooth to move anymore, from streety-mouth kid Eddie and stinky old Nolte to madcap Mel and wise old Glover. As for the chronic theme of cop realpolitik and consequent corruption, stop it! Bored now! Plus, today's cop movies are lousy with hard-shelled softies who attain grudging racial rapprochement in the heat of the night prowl of gangbangerland. Most cop-movie makers should be turned over to the authorities.
So my hopes were low for Training Day, noted music video director Antoine Fuqua's flick about a Dirty Old Pragmatist, Alonzo (Denzel Washington), showing a Dewy Rookie, Jake (Ethan Hawke), the bloody LAPD ropes. But instantly, Denzel won me over. Nasty in black from his thug cap to his victim-stomper boots, he manages a better evil makeover than I could have imagined.
The odor of sanctity has clung too much to this man. He's forever playing upright symbols in do-good dramas: Biko, Malcolm X, white-coated docs, white-collar lawyers, black righters of wrong. When he's a rebel, it's for a cause: a submarine hero defying a warmonger commander, a Gulf War hero ashamed of his medal, a Civil War hero demanding dignity. His films' titles tell the story: Courage Under Fire, Cry Freedom, Glory. And he's preposterously perfect; when Newsweek needed an actor whose ideal facial symmetry illustrated the science of human beauty, Denzel was their man. He wouldn't boost his career by doing the blockbuster Seven: It seemed "evil" to him. His Oscar might as well have been for Best Moral Actor–in fact, they should make all the Oscar statues in his image. They would seem more purely gold.
So the badder-than-Bad Lieutenant Alonzo is the role Denzel needs as desperately as the genre needs him. And he's better than Harvey Keitel in basically the same part. Harvey's hypocrite narc bellowed his degradation through a megaphone of self-pity; Denzel, armed with a smarter script, plays Alonzo like an insinuating jazz sax, all tricky riffs that hide melody's meaning from the uninitiated. For the longest time, it's hard for us to tell that Alonzo really is wholly evil.
We regard him through the big button eyes of Jake as Alonzo lays down the law in his "office," a low-down Monte Carlo rolling through LA's scarier scenes. "Unlearn everything you learned at the academy; it'll get you killed," snaps Alonzo. So far, so Popeye Doyle. "In order to protect the sheep, you got to go after the wolves. And to catch a wolf, you got to be a wolf." What keeps this from being familiar is Alonzo's skill at keeping Jake, and us, off balance. When you see it written down, you see it's horseshit. But while Alonzo's talking, you're intimidated by his flashpowder temper, seduced by his teasing, inviting grin, mesmerized by his rousing preacher phrasing (Denzel's real-life father was a preacher), manipulated by his ambiguous cackle when you invariably get everything wrong. Jake is also scared of the vision of the future Alonzo shows him: a cop writing parking tickets, or helping a lady with a flat tire. If Jake can't prove he's a wolf in his first twenty-four hours on the job, he won't pass Alonzo's muster, and that's his sole shot at getting ahead.
Ethan, a wispy poet onscreen and off, who can't seem to grow a proper beard at 30, seems an unlikely partner for Denzel. That's why Denzel forced the studio to cast him. The contrast is so extreme, it makes the innocence/cynicism collision seem fresh. Jake, unstreetwisely bookish, terminally earnest, reminds me of my nice, white friend on the National Book Critics Circle who watched Menace II Society and afterward asked a friend, "Hey, how come those two gang guys called each other 'Holmes'? I mean, what are the odds they're both named Holmes?" In scene after relentless scene–staged by inner-city émigré Fuqua without much rhythmic sense overall but with great feeling for lingo, place and pace–Denzel points out to Jake the horrors of the narc cop's beat. The two men are like mahogany and balsa wood; weigh them in a balance and the balance becomes a catapult, with poor Jake soaring, bewildered.