'Training Day" is an equal-opportunity police brutality picture, depicting a modern Los Angeles in which the black cop is slimier and more corrupt than anybody ever thought the white cops were. Alonzo Harris, played by Denzel Washington, makes Popeye Doyle look like Officer Friendly. So extreme is his mad dog behavior, indeed, that it shades over into humor: Washington seems to enjoy a performance that's over the top and down the other side.
He plays Alonzo as the meanest, baddest narcotics cop in the city--a dude who cruises the mean streets in his confiscated customized Caddy, extracting tribute and accumulating graft like a medieval warlord shaking down his serfs. His pose is that the job must be done this way: If you don't intimidate the street, it will kill you. This is the lesson he's teaching Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke), a young cop who dreams of being promoted to the elite narc squad. This is Jake's first day of training, and he's been placed in the hands of Alonzo for a taste of street reality. Jake's dream: Get a promotion so he can move his wife and child to a nicer house. This may not turn out to be a wise career move. Just as a warm-up, Alonzo forces him to smoke pot (it turns out to be laced with PCP): If you turn down gifts on the street, he's told, "you'll be dead." He watches as Jake stops two punks who are raping a girl, and then instead of arresting the rapists, Alonzo thoroughly and competently beats them.
Dispensing street justice is what it's all about, Alonzo believes; the enemy lives outside the law, and you have to pursue him there. Jake hallucinates for a while because of the PCP, but surfaces to accompany Alonzo on a visit to an old and slimy colleague (Scott Glenn), on a raid on a drug dealer's house, on a visit to what seems to be Alonzo's secret second family, and to a restaurant rendezvous with what appears to be a circle of top cops who mastermind graft and payoffs. Along the way there's a sensational gun battle, although it doesn't draw enough attention to interrupt Alonzo's routine. I'm not saying all of these events in one day are impossible; in the real world, however, by the end of it both cops would be exhausted, and shaking for a druggist for Ben-Gay.
Is Alonzo for real? Are the city and its cops really this evil? (I am asking about the movie, not life.) At first we wonder if Alonzo isn't putting on a show to test the rookie. The rookie thinks that, too--that if he yields to temptation, he'll be busted. That theory comes to an end when Jake is ordered to kill someone, or be framed for the murder, anyway. And Alonzo isn't the exception to the rule: We can tell by the lunchtime summit that he's part of the ruling circle.
For Denzel Washington, "Training Day" is a rare villainous role; he doesn't look, sound or move like his usual likable characters, and certainly there's no trace of the football coach from "Remember The Titans." The movie, directed by Antoine Fuqua ("Bait") and written by David Ayer ("The Fast and the Furious") keeps pushing him, and by the end, it has pushed him right into pure fantasy. Antoine in the earlier scenes seems extreme but perhaps believable; by the end, he's like a monster from a horror film, unkillable and implacable.
A lot of people are going to be leaving the theater as I did, wondering about the logic and plausibility of the last 15 minutes. There are times when you're distracted from the action on the screen by the need to trace back through the plot and try to piece together how events could possibly have turned out this way. But Ayer's screenplay is ingenious in the way it plants clues and pays them off in unexpected ways, so that "Training Day" makes as much sense as movies like this usually can. It might have been better if it had stayed closer to life, but it doesn't want to be.
For its kinetic energy and acting zeal, I enjoyed the movie. I like it when actors go for broke. Ethan Hawke is well cast as the cop who believes "we serve and protect" but has trouble accepting the logic of Alonzo's style of serving and protection.
And the supporting roles are well-crafted, especially the retired cop played by Glenn, who seems to be sitting on a whole other buried story. Aware as I was of its loopholes and excesses, the movie persuaded me to go along for the ride. Of course you can't watch the movie without thinking of the Rodney King and O.J. Simpson sagas, two sides of the same coin, both suggesting the Los Angeles police are not perfect. I found myself wondering what would have happened if the movie had flipped the races, with a rotten white cop showing a black rookie the ropes. Given the way the movie pays off, that might have been doable. But it would have involved flipping the itinerary of the street tours, too; instead of the black cop planting the white boy in the middle of hostile non-white environments, you'd have the white cop taking the black rookie to the white drug-lords; gated mansions in "Traffic" (2001) come to mind. Not as much fun.
Footnote: Will audiences accept this movie in the current climate, when cops and firemen are hailed as heroes? I think maybe so; I think by delaying the movie's opening two weeks, Warner Bros. sidestepped a potential backlash. And Denzel's performance is sure to generate strong word-of-mouth. Second question: It's been asked if violent movies will become rare in these sad days after the terrorism. The box-office performance of "Training Day" may provide the answer.
Great Character: Alonzo Harris (“Training Day”)
This month’s Great Character theme: Cops. Today: Jason Cuthbert’s guest post features Alonzo Harris from the 2001 movie Training Day [written by David Ayer].
After Denzel Washington clinched his first Academy Award in the Best Actor in a Supporting Role category at the 1990 ceremony for Glory, Washington then claimed his second Oscar validation for corrupt law enforcer Detective Alonzo Harris in the 2001 crime thriller Training Day. After huge performances in Malcolm X, The Hurricane, Philadelphia, Cry Freedom and Crimson Tide, Washington’s intense and compelling presence in Training Day, directed by Antoine Fuqua (Brooklyn’s Finest, Shooter), emerged as a strong polar opposite to Denzel’s traditionally heroic and dignified characters — proving he was also really good at playing the really bad guy.
Training Day plot summary from IMDB:
On his first day on the job as a narcotics officer, a rookie cop works with a rogue detective who isn’t what he appears.
Screenwriter David Ayer turned his teen experiences living with a cousin in South Central Los Angeles and research about the L.A. Police Department into a $1 million script for Training Day. It may be Ethan Hawke’s straight-laced, naive officer Jake Hoyt whose eyeballs we view this tough day of training through. But it’s Washington’s mentor-turned-antagonist character that has the unpredictable scene-stealing bad-ass-ness and gives Hoyt his obstacles and conflict — tests that grow into increasingly unethical and life-threatening situations.
Even Alonzo Harris’ on-screen introduction, meeting up with Hoyt in a diner, is a tremendous test to overcome. Harris controls their conversation, their menu options and even the answers that he wants from Hoyt. Before they can hit the troubled streets of Los Angeles together, Hoyt must first graduate into being a guy that Harris can actually see himself sitting in a car with all day long.
Harris is not just concerned with Hoyt’s ability to entertain him and withstand a lack of social graces. Harris needs to know whether Hoyt can blend into a hostile environment or if he will look like he is lost on his way to Disneyland. The manner in which Harris pushes his street-smart quiz on Hoyt bypasses morals, disregards the laws that they are suppose to be upholding and spins the concept of “peer pressure” way out of control.
If there is one thing that Alonzo Harris is chasing throughout the length of his time served in the story of Training Day, it is — control. He must control the rules, control his partner, control his friends, control his enemies and even control the odds that he will be caught breaking the law. Anyone, including Officer Hoyt, who refuses complete submission to Harris’ personal plight of anarchy, will be sliding down a slippery slope of self-serving “justice.”
ALONZO: You hear that, homey? You wanna go to jail or you wanna go home? Huh?
CRACKHEAD #1: What you think?
ALONZO: They got room for you at the booty house, you ever been to the booty house. Big boys have you grab you ankles…
Moral fiber is definitely not in Harris’ daily diet of greed and deception. He clearly understands the mentality of the law-breakers that he is battling, and uses this insight as justification for his behavior.
ALONZO: To protect the sheep you gotta catch the wolf, and it takes a wolf to catch a wolf.
One of the greatest elements of Denzel Washington’s brilliant, anti-type casting portrayal of Detective Alonzo Harris is how unapologetically he plays him. He is like a time bomb that you cannot only hear ticking, but also one that has the audacity to tell you exactly where it is located — with full confidence that you can’t do anything about it. Harris’s arrogant swagger may appear free of guilt, but this brazen bravado serves another master — to enforce intimidatation as a distraction when his wrongs look dead wrong.
ALONZO: I’m the police, I run shit around here. You just live here. Yeah, that’s right, you better walk away. Go on and walk away… ’cause I’m gonna’ burn this motherfucker down. King Kong ain’t got shit on me. That’s right, that’s right. Shit, I don’t, fuck. I’m winning anyway, I’m winning… I’m winning any motherfucking way. I can’t lose. Yeah, you can shoot me, but you can’t kill me.
For his raw survival instincts, fast-paced charismatic wit and formidable impulsive actions — Alonzo Harris is an unforgettably GREAT CHARACTER.
Cops are about law and authority, and when the latter overtakes the former, you get great characters like this one.
What do you think of Alonzo Harris as a character? See you in comments to discuss.
Thanks to Jason (@A2Jason) for another great analysis.