Despite having its release delayed two weeks by recent events, the timing for "Training Day" couldn't be better. In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, there has been renewed debate over the tradeoffs that need to be made between national security and personal liberties, with law enforcement agencies of the United States pushing for more far-reaching powers to eavesdrop, detect, detain, and even destroy suspected terrorists. Indeed, as terrorist cells of Osama Bin Laden's organization are being uncovered across the globe, this is an issue being faced by all democratic nations around the world. How far are governments willing to go in order to prevent terrorist attacks on their native soil-- automatic presumption of guilt upon arrest of suspects, cooperation with 'lesser evil' radical or criminal organizations, or even state-sponsored assassinations? Will the end justify any and all means? The setting for "Training Day" may be on the crime-infested streets of Los Angeles, but the tough questions it poses are equally relevant to the new war on terrorism.
Spanning a single 24-hour period, "Training Day" follows the first day in an undercover narcotics unit for ambitious L.A. cop Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke of "Hamlet"). The unit is headed up by the illustrious Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington of "The Hurricane"), a veteran of the LAPD whose arrest record is legendary. Within the first hour, Jake learns firsthand that Alonzo is wildly unconventional in how he conducts both himself and his investigations, rolling through the neighborhoods of South Central in his souped-up roadster, looking very much like the gangbangers he pursues. The greenhorn also finds himself increasingly uncomfortable with the things he sees and is asked to do by his new boss, including questionable search-and-seizures, the beating of suspects, and even the use of drugs (both legal and illegal) while on duty.
But because he is eager to prove himself and join the squad, Jake tries to turn a blind eye to Alonzo's questionable behavior, and entertains the philosophy that 'it takes a wolf to catch a wolf'. After all, what good is an undercover cop if he cannot convincingly take a puff from a crack pipe without gagging, or how effective can the police be in catching the big fish of the underworld if they get bogged down in dealing with the petty criminals? But as the day drags on, Jake is drawn ever deeper into Alonzo's world of corruption and lawlessness, where murder is just another means to an end. Unfortunately, Jake has more than just his career to worry about-- when he is confronted by the decision to either go along with Alonzo's illegal scheme or turn him in, his own life may be on the line.
"Training Day" is the third outing for former music video director Antoine Fuqua. After paying homage to John Woo for Chow Yun-Fat's Hollywood debut in "The Replacement Killers" and delivering a snappy yet mindless actioner with "Bait", Fuqua finally delivers a picture with some substance to it. For the most part, "Training Day" is a provocative cautionary tale that asks how many freedoms and principles are we willing to sacrifice in order to protect society from harm. While this latest film may provide an interesting flip side to last year's "Traffic", which also dealt with America's war on drugs, when viewed in the context of recent events, "Training Day" provides some interesting perspectives that could not be any more relevant.
In many ways, the script by David Ayer ("The Fast and the Furious") draws some (inadvertent) parallels between the war on drugs and America's new war on terrorism. Like the illicit drug trade, terrorism is often the desperate by-product of poverty and social inequity, and very difficult to combat, unless law enforcement agencies are willing to get down into the weeds where terrorists hide and ply their trade. In the past few weeks, law enforcement agencies in the United States have asked for an easing of restrictions on what they can and can't do, while public opinion has swayed towards offering up civil liberties in exchange for greater security. Similarly, Alonzo and his team are willing to break the law in order to net the top dealers, including the subjugation of suspects' rights, and ignoring or cooperating with the 'lesser evil' of street dealers. This is even more interesting in light of US activities during the height of the Cold War during the Sixties, when intelligence agencies worked with organized crime in failed attempts to unseat Fidel Castro, or with respect to how the Israeli Mossad intelligence agency regularly uses any means possible, including assassinations, to protect its security. Unfortunately, like how "Training Day " and the lessons of history point out, lack of accountability or a proper governance structure opens the door to even greater abuses by misguided individuals (the Iran-Contra scandal as a case in point).
Unfortunately, with this said, it is in the last half-hour that "Training Day" falls apart, as the provocative questions about the price of law and order are thrown out the window by some deus ex machina plotting and standard action-thriller set pieces. It is here that the moral quandary between Jake's by-the-book approach and Alonzo's questionable tactics distills into a simple black-and-white grudge match. Alonzo is clearly presented as an over-the-top villain, instead of a veteran cop with the wrong priorities whose heart in the right place, which would have been far more interesting. Thankfully, what precedes this somewhat disappointing ending is still strong enough to carry the film.
After a long history of playing straight-laced protagonists, Washington chews scenery as a villain you love to hate, so suave and self-assured as he wantonly disregards the very laws he is supposed to be upholding. In contrast, though Hawke is likable as the audience's 'tour guide' into the dark underbelly of L.A.'s streets, he almost fades into the background next to an over-the-top Washington. Finally, turning in decent supporting roles are Scott Glenn ("Courage Under Fire"), rappers Snoop Doggy Dogg (seen recently in "Baby Boy") and Dr. Dre ("Set It Off"), singer Macy Gray (who will appear in next summer's "Spiderman" movie), and Tom Berenger ("The Substitute").
Combining the morality play and cautionary tale, "Training Day" is a film that is very appropriate for the times. The drama that plays out in "Training Day" is equally relevant to both the war on drugs and the new war footing against terrorism, as it holds a mirror to some of the issues faced by governments and the public as they rethink the balance between security, privacy, and personal liberty. Though the film would have been stronger without the last half and the over-the-top portrayal of the villain's vices, "Training Day" is no doubt one of the more thought-provoking films to come out in recent months.