Training Day

dir: Antoine Fuqua
[img_assist|nid=1073|title=Now with more machismo!|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=350|height=519]
Could have been. This flick could have been a contender. It is well acted (mostly), well directed, and with one monumental example to the contrary, mostly well scripted. It is deeply unfortunate that the monumental fuck-up that occurs in the script at about the 1 hour mark renders the rest of the film an exercise in pointlessness, but then again, if life has taught me anything, it’s that you can’t have everything, and even if you did, some bastard would probably break in and steal all your shit when you were at work.

It’s the way of the world. None of this justifies the awful and insulting way that the film degenerates into a true Hollywood morass by its end, but hell, as I’ve mentioned a million times before, most films stuff up the ending because they never put as much work into the conclusion as they do with the pitch:
(pitch meeting between producers and studio execs)
“Um, Denzel as the bad guy?”
- “Sold!”

The premise alone is supposed to be enough to justify our interest: Denzel overacting all through the film playing a badass cop. That they weave some strands regarding ethics and the morality of police work into it would seem to be an additional, intellectually enjoyable level upon which the film could have worked. That they piss it all away by insulting our intelligence with a plot conceit so shameless that it would make M. Night Shyamalan blush means the only reason the film will ever be remembered will be because of the sympathy Oscar Denzel Washington received for his overrated performance, and not for any particular virtue of the film.

It’s overrated in the sense that it’s not as if it’s hard to play an arsehole. Playing an arsehole well is another matter entirely. In truth, as much as I like Denzel’s performances, there’s not a lot of variation in them. He tends to play the same character in nearly every flick. Sure he does it well, but, you know, it’d be nice if he could do something different for once.

Here he plays Captain Alonzo, lustily channelling the spirit of Tony Montana and Yosemite Sam as he chews up so much of the scenery that I wonder how much money was needed to reconstruct Los Angeles after his Godzilla-like rampage. He is completely and utterly over the top. It’s wonderful to watch, it really is. But it’s not acting. Acting is when someone plays a character, or plays themselves really well, to the point where we forget we’re watching actors and instead get immersed into the story. It doesn’t really happen here.

Ethan Hawke as Hoyt has the hard job here, but you never heard anyone suggesting that he deserved an Oscar for his performance. He didn’t, but that wasn’t the issue. He puts in a solid performance as the straight guy to Denzel’s mania. He’s our “in” into the story, so his questions about the more insane statements and actions that Alonzo is responsible for, are our questions as well.

Hoyt is starting in a new assignment, as one of Alonzo’s hand picked men in the Narcotics squad. Alonzo has a tremendous reputation for arrests and getting the job done, and Hoyt hopes that if he does well working for him that this will make him as a lieutenant. The “training” in the title refers to Hoyt’s first day on the job, and the lessons that Alonzo tries to impart to him.

From the start they are brought into conflict: Hoyt is young, idealistic, and believes in the idea of the police genuinely serving the public. Radically enough, he also seems to believe that police are supposed to not be corrupt, and are supposed to protect the public from harm.

Nay, nay and thrice nay teaches Alonzo, all dressed up like a gangster with nowhere to go: to catch a wolf, one must become a wolf. The only way Narcotics officers can really function effectively on the street is by becoming criminals; by using drugs, by applying copious amounts of violence as desired, ignoring lesser crimes and the plight of the public they are sworn to protect. The game, the real game is between the cops and the dealers. The public don’t really factor into it.

Hoyt is in awe of Alonzo at first, as are we. His charismatic manner and ruthless jungle ethics seem almost credible, as we see the ‘real’ life on the streets as Alonzo sees it. Hoyt starts off seeming susceptible to Alonzo’s worldview because he hopes it may make him a better cop, and that Alonzo will like him. Let’s face it, many of us remember from the school yard that you either wished you were respected by the tough kids, you wanted to be one of the tough kids, or you desperately wished you were invisible to them. Even if you thought they were utter retards, a word of positive acknowledgment thrown your way would make you feel ten foot tall for a week, until they beat up you just for something to do.

Alonzo is the self-described Big Dog; naturally, Hoyt wants to win his respect, and ends up doing a lot of things he probably would rather not have. These situations occur in the first, and best, part of the film, where there is no plot involved. Alonzo is showing him the world, the people in it and how they work. Hoyt, having a completely different ethical standpoint, sees things differently. They argue about it, their beliefs are called into question by the circumstances that arise, we judge based on our own ideas. It’s interesting.

All of this is totally abandoned when the plot kicks in. Alonzo is in trouble with some Russian mobsters because of something that mysteriously occurred in Las Vegas over the weekend. Peripheral characters keep referring to it in passing, as if it’s some household chore Alonzo forgot to do.

We realise that all of Alonzo’s wise counsel to his young apprentice is a load of crap. His worldview is nothing more than self-serving bullshit filtered through street-speak and the same idiotic machismo of the criminals he’s supposed to defend society from.

So it’s up to Hoyt to take him down and make the world safe for democracy again.

The point where the film completely breaks down for me is where Hoyt is placed in a position of violent, certain death, and he gets out of it in a manner so coincidental that it makes the way James Bond gets out of deathly situations seem positively believable. It just isn’t.

After that the film for me is a grim death march towards its inevitable conclusion. And it makes the rest of the film look worse because of it. On subsequent viewings it hasn’t irritated me as much as the first time I saw it in the cinema, but it still rankles with me. The film could have been so much better had they thought it through a bit better.

A rooftop slugfest is not the way a film like this deserved to end. Having a character miraculously be able to fly in order to stop another from getting away (how does Hoyt get from the top of the apartment block to Alonzo’s car without wings?) is even dumberer. It sticks in my craw. The absolute end is okay, but the story could have just been so much better had more work been carried out on the script, the bloody script.

Still, it’s well shot, the moody camera work suits the story, and it has a decent feel to it. The objective is to represent Los Angeles as a dangerous, hostile place and it succeeds. All of the performances are good, there are numerous cameos from the music world who all do pretty well, and aren’t gratuitous for the sake of it, or even particularly flattering (Macy Grey, Snoop Dog, Dr Dre). The soundtrack and score match the material and make the whole extravaganza feel like you’re playing GTA: San Andreas, which is not a bad thing. But it is superficial.

Denzel didn’t really deserve an Oscar for it. Sure, he was fun to watch, but that doesn’t make it a great performance in a okay film. It makes it an okay performance in a forgettable film. I think they gave it to him because of all the work he’s done, and especially because they owed it to him for not having given him one for Malcolm X back in the day.

Movies about cops, considering the sheer volume I’ve seen over the years, are getting pretty dull, and have been done to death a million times. This flick could have been about something so much more. Anyone who has read any James Ellroy novels, or seen the films based on his work (LA Confidential, Dark Blue) and lots of other crime stuff, knows that corrupt cops can make for fascinating characters and entertaining stories. Not like this one, oh no, not like this.

4 times you sometimes wish you could shoot Denzel with a tranquilliser dart out of 10

“You disloyal, fool-ass, bitch-made punk” – the eloquence of Denzel in Training Day