Training Day is an ugly, unpleasant, violent, gratingly foul-mouthed and slang-ridden movie that’s hard not to admit is extremely well made — even while being all that — and ridiculously over-plotted in the bargain. On certain levels, the film works quite well. I won’t for a moment deny the ferocity of Denzel Washington’s no-holds-barred performance as corrupt narcotics Detective Alonzo Harris. It’s a riveting, indelible performance — one of power and authority, and the sneaking suspicion that Washington is enjoying the hell out of being utterly evil for a change. It may even be Oscar time for Washington from this one, since it’s against type and extremely showy, though the man has done better work (The Hurricane, anyone?). And I have to give high marks to Ethan Hawke for a game, physically demanding performance as Jake Hoyt, the rookie cop undergoing ostensible training from Alonzo. Antoine Fuqua’s direction of the material is, if not inspired, then at least appropriately hard-driven. But — and this is where the trouble lies — there’s the question of the material itself. The screenplay by David Ayers (The Fast and the Furious) is absurdly complex, to the degree that — even by the end of the film — certain key plot elements are far from clear. As a character study of an almost impossibly corrupt cop, the film had potential, and it does lead you down this path for a good deal of its length. For this stretch of the film, it seems to be a portrait of a man who has become ultimately corrupt and lost all semblance of a moral center — a man who went from good to evil by getting too close to the very thing he was fighting, until he could no longer distinguish right from wrong (especially within himself). Unfortunately, the film then veers off into a convoluted plot that reduces Alonzo to nothing more than a high-powered crooked cop out to save himself by any means necessary. Right then, Training Day loses all of its credibility and becomes just another cop movie — albeit an unusually unpleasant one. All its ugliness, all its grittiness is suddenly in the service of nothing but a plot. Its apparent theme has vanished. Worse, the plot has several aspects that make no sense. The primary one being: Why has Alonzo been working toward his wildly elaborate scheme throughout the movie when he only learns just how dire his position is about half-way through the film? The film never makes this clear. What it does, unfortunately, make far too clear early on is where it’s heading. When Alonzo takes Jake into a particularly bad neighborhood where he is supposedly safe because he “treats them right,” and then we linger on some of Alonzo’s ‘hood friends just so they can remark on how much they hate him, it’s not hard to figure out that we’re being fed a plot set-up. By the time the set-up pays off, there’s no surprise and no suspense, as the story winds its way around to its gaudily violent conclusion. Despite the movie’s technical skill and the powerhouse performance of Washington, it’s finally a none-too-pleasant disappointment. There’s an irony here, because Training Day starts out being the story of a good cop who went wrong and ends up being a potentially good movie that went wrong.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke