“Training Day” could not be more aptly titled, and not simply because those two words offer the most accurate and succinct summation possible of the film’s story and structure. The title also gives a clear idea of how star Denzel Washington schools the viewer in how electrifying screen acting can be.
Director Antoine Fuqua wisely trades in the glossy flash of his previous two films, The Replacement Killers and Bait, for more a more realistic, down-and-dirty approach befitting this dark and gritty story. “Training Day” slavishly sticks to the 24-hour time period of its title, a day in which rookie LAPD cop Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) is to be shown the ropes of the narcotics investigation beat by 13-year vet Alonzo Harris (Washington). The training that Jake receives goes beyond the expected by-the-book procedures, however. As the long day wears on, it becomes an increasingly charged clash of personalities and ideologies, with the naive Jake learning about the code of street justice in the hardest possible way from the many difficult situations into which Alonzo places him — not to mention from the morally ambiguous Alonzo himself.
The press and advertising for “Training Day” have made it clear that Alonzo is perhaps just as bad, if not worse, than the types he busts every day, but Washington makes the gradual unpeeling of his character’s layers absolutely riveting. Washington’s natural magnetism as well as any other baggage he brings with him from previous films actually works wonders for this role. Much like how Alonzo’s behavior constantly subverts any idealistic notions about law enforcement officers, Washington’s fearless performance continually challenges any preconceptions of “nobility” one may have associated with the actor; the viewer is never allowed any comfort as one is made increasingly uncertain of just how far the character will go. Alonzo’s test of Jake’s mettle is paralleled by the implicit acting challenge Washington’s formidable work presents to Hawke, and like his character, the well-cast Hawke proves up to the demanding task, at times rather surprisingly so.
Disappointing it is, then, that David Ayer’s script fails to keep up with the pace of the actors; the story gets too reliant on contrivance and coincidence to drive its final third. Effectively summing up “Training Day” is one of the film’s more awkward moments, a scene where Alonzo gives a charged speech in the middle of the night, in the middle of a residential street. It’s hard not to see the scene as the bit of melodramatic grandstanding that it is, but that point — and any other issues with the material, for that matter — is made irrelevant by Washington’s volcanic energy and fierce conviction.