[Screen It]

(2001) (Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke) (R)

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Drama/Thriller: Hoping to be added to a veteran narcotics detective's team, a green rookie rides with him for a day and learns that things aren't as ideal as he'd imagined.
Jake Hoyt (ETHAN HAWKE) is a young cop who wants to join the L.A.P.D.'s narcotics team. To do so, he's assigned to a training day where he's to ride with veteran detective Alonzo Harris (DENZEL WASHINGTON) who will see if the rookie has what it takes for the job.

Informing Harris that he'll do whatever he asks of him, Jake expects a routine day of instruction and limited action, and he initially gets just that as they make a drug bust. When Harris makes Jake smoke some of their confiscated evidence, however, he quickly realizes this won't be any regular training.

As the day wears on, Jake meets many of Harris' varied associates, such as old friend, Roger (SCOTT GLENN); disabled drug dealer, Sammy (SNOOP DOGG); and menacing thug Smiley (CLIFF CURTIS). Seeing the veteran interacting with them and living and acting by his own set of rules, the rookie cop must decide if his new partner for the day is just testing him or truly is a renegade detective with his own agenda and plan for dealing out justice.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Much like canines like meaty dog food and large, burly men enjoy hearty meals comprised of lots of beef, thespians enjoy meaty roles as well, and that's not just limited in a literal since to one named Hannibal Lecter.

While performers often strive to pick parts that are relatively "normal," at times they revel in the chance to embody flamboyant characters where they can purposefully go over the top with their acting style and have fun while doing so. The history of the cinema is littered with such characters and the number of them has now increased by one with the creation of Alonzo Harris.

Although the name seems relatively innocuous, the character is anything but that, and the talented Denzel Washington seemingly has a blast playing him in "Training Day." A good cop, bad cop sort of story, the film rests completely on Washington's shoulders and he seems more than able and willing to carry it. Playing the latest in a long line of corrupt cops who live and operate by their own set of rules, Washington ("The Hurricane," "Glory") brings a freshness to the role that makes it seem somewhat original. It's certainly mesmerizing to watch.

The fun, of course, beyond the actor vigorously sinking his teeth into the role, is watching his character manipulate his rookie partner, decently played here by Ethan Hawke ("Snow Falling on Cedars," "Hamlet"). Harris not only knows the rules but has also made them up on his own home court, and Hawke's Jake is akin to Alice in Wonderland, not quite believing the upside down world in which he's suddenly and rather unexpectedly found himself.

The two men's ideals obviously clash and there's little doubt that things will get both physical and precarious for the green cop before the final credits roll. While we've seen this sort of setup and story before, the way in which the main cast members and filmmakers have assembled it makes most of it seem fresh, at least until some late in the game contrivances partially undermine the collective efforts.

Until then, however, the film is near completely engaging to watch, with Washington delivering an Oscar caliber performance and Hawke nicely playing against him. The story from screenwriter David Ayer ("The Fast and the Furious," "U-571") works for the most part, and keeps us guessing for a while about Harris' true intentions.

I personally would have preferred more of that deeper and longer into the film - where Jake can't decide or figure out if Harris is merely testing and hazing him or truly is a loose cannon - as that would have kept things interesting longer, but what's there of that does work.

Some solutions and developments that pop up late in the film, however, do feel a bit too forced and/or contrived, and the ending nears the standard mano a mano dreck we've come to expect from films like this.

The biggest surprise, however, is in how director Antoine Fuqua has seemingly matured as a filmmaker. After helming the style and no substance shoot 'em up film, "The Replacement Killers," and the subpar action comedy, "Bait," I didn't hold out much hope for the music video auteur turned feature film director.

Yet, Fuqua shows he's evolved and matured as a filmmaker with this effort. While it still looks terrific from a technical standpoint, he thankfully doesn't allow style to overshadow substance. The result is a highly polished and mostly effective drama tinged with some action/thriller moments.

That said, Fuqua hasn't entirely abandoned his music video past as he's cast various musical stars - such as Dr. Dre ("Whiteboys," "Set It Off"), Macy Gray (making her debut) and Snoop Dogg ("Bones," "Baby Boy") in various parts. While some work, others feel a bit jarring in this otherwise cameo-free production. Other supporting performances from the likes of Scott Glenn ("Vertical Limit," "The Silence of the Lambs") and Cliff Curtis ("Blow," "Three Kings") are all fine, even if many of them don't amount to much.

While the film easily could have fallen into the "been there, seen that" category, the efforts both in front of and behind the camera make it an above average entry in its genre. Not without its flaws but nevertheless still rather good, "Training Day" rates as a 6.5 out of 10, thanks in great part to Washington's flashy, but nevertheless terrific performance.

Reviewed September 13, 2001 / Posted October 5, 2001

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