Training Day



USA 2001 : Antoine Fuqua : 120 mins

It’s no surprise to learn that the same scriptwriter is responsible for both Training Day and The Fast and the Furious. Both David Ayer screenplays expend much time and effort building up their (black) anti-heroes into explosively charismatic demon kings of the LA ‘hood, then expect us to believe they’d have anything to do with the insipid slices of white bread served up as our (insulting) surrogates – let alone consider them their ‘homeys’.

In F&F we, along with Vin Diesel, only find out Paul Walker is a cop halfway through – but in Training Day both eager rookie Ethan Hawke and ghetto-mentor Denzel Washington are badge-wielding members of the LAPD. Over 24 hours we follow Hawke’s Jake Hoyt as he receives a brutal education in the ways of the street from Washington’s Alonzo Harris – but despite the title, this isn’t so much a ‘training day’ as an extended job interview. And while Hoyt is keen to impress Harris with a view to joining the older man’s rough-edged but highly successful narcotics department, exactly how far will he go? And are Harris’s motivations all they seem?

Early on, Training Day features some surprisingly intricate psychological interplay between Hoyt and Harris: on one level, the audience shares Hoyt’s uncertainty about how to take Harris’s ‘tests.’ With his goateed-young-dad eagerness, the kid’s like Brad Pitt in Se7en, except it’s hard to tell if he’s getting his lessons from a ‘Somerset’ or a ‘John Doe’ – or both at once. Even more intriguingly, someone remarks how much Hoyt reminds them of Harris when he started out, and we wait for signs of Jake’s gradual moral degradation, a bit like trying to spot flashes of Darth Vader in the young Anakin Skywalker.

But Ayer, disappointingly, either doesn’t have the time or inclination to bother with subtext, gradually abandoning any pretense at psychological ambiguity to becomes much more of a routine thriller, with exotic foreign bogeymen (the Russian mafia, here occupying the Hollywood deus ex machina role traditionally filled by ‘Arab terrorists’) lurking in the wings as the most obvious give-away of the screenplay’s general laziness.

Ayer’s limitations are no indictment of director Fuqua, of course, whose approach shows much more sophistication and restraint, resisting the temptation to overindulge in visual flash, and subtly exploring the disorientingly varied LA geography through which his characters move. Likewise, he avoids going overboard with the rap soundtrack despite the acting presence of superstars Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg, although it’s big-screen debutant Macy Gray (in a blazing cameo as a gangster’s moll) who makes the biggest impact, stealing her (one) scene from the Oscar-nominated starring duo. Dogg’s presence, meanwhile, stirs memores of John Singleton’s Baby Boy, a skilful and original analysis of South Central dynamics to which Training Day often stands surprisingly close comparison.

This is partly thanks to casting director Mary Vernieu’s impressive background army of musclebound, posing extras – in the film’s strongest single sequence, Hoyt finds himself out of his depth among these scary-looking self-proclaimed ‘thugs’ when he’s invited to join their kitchen-table card game. Fuqua maintains genuine tension over a long scene – only for the script’s clunking requirements to kick in, saving Hoyt from certain death by an especially cheap, contrived coincidence.

By then, to be fair, Ayer has left Fast and the Furious territory far behind – we’re finally let in on the reality behind Harris’s unlikely apparent “respect” for Hoyt – but he’s still got some way to go before he reaches a mature engagement with his complex subject. Rather than a searching, potentially downbeat expose of the LAPD’s moral corruption, we get an unconvincing ‘one bad apple’ diagnosis, the picture’s retreat into melodrama leaving Hoyt’s idealism optimistically intact: after all this, he still wouldn’t last five minutes on the street.

15th March, 2002
(seen 13th March, UGC Sheffield)

click here for an exclusive behind-the-scenes insight into the making of Training Day

by Neil Young
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