Cast against type, Denzel Washington absolutely chews up the scenery as an ethically challenged cop in "Training Day," a gripping police drama set on the mean streets of Los Angeles. Grim, violent and spiked with tension, the story seems to be derived from real-life interaction between undercover officers and tough street gangs.
Director Antoine Fuqua, who made a splashy debut with 1998's "The Replacement Killers," uses the character of veteran L.A.P.D. narcotics Detective Sergeant Alonzo Harris (Washington) to dupe viewers -- for a while at least. Also initially deceived is Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke), an idealistic North Hollywood beat cop who hopes to prove himself fit for a spot on Harris' elite narcotics unit.
"Don't screw this up," Hoyt's wife (the mother of their 9-month-old daughter) tells him on the morning of his one-day tryout. At first, Harris -- driving a jacked-up Monte Carlo and resplendent in all-black clothing, knit skull cap, diamond earring and silver jewelry -- comes off as a good-natured bad-ass. He harasses the nervous kid for interrupting him as he tries to read a newspaper, then begins to ask Hoyt a series of increasingly personal questions about his sex life.
Soon enough, the detective has burrowed deep under the skin of his eager-to-please charge. "To be truly effective, a good narcotics officer must know and love narcotics," Harris says, using a pistol to cajole the rookie into smoking pot laced with PCP. For several minutes, we see the gritty streets through drug-hazed eyes, thanks to odd tints and jump cuts. The sense of surreal dislocation provided by cinematographer Mauro Fiore ("The Center of the World") is effective.
When Hoyt thwarts a rape, tangling with two violent, homeless men, his would-be partner simply watches it all, relishing the action. The rookie complains about his boss' lack of interest in putting the perpetrators behind bars; Harris responds that he has made arrests resulting in more than 15,000 years of jail time. The two of them, he says, have bigger issues to deal with.
Is Harris simply trying to educate the newcomer, attempting to up his "street IQ" for purposes of self defense? Is the detective's skirting of the rules the means to a good end? Or is he deeply, thoroughly corrupt, a cop having a hell of a time working above the law?
The duo's interactions with a wheelchair-bound crack dealer (Snoop Dogg, another excellent turn), a wily crime kingpin (Scott Glenn) and the wife (pop star Macy Gray) of a gang figure are increasingly suspect. After his first day on the job, Hoyt is more than ready to switch careers.
"Tough is as tough does," Harris propounds. "You've gotta decide whether you're a wolf or you're a sheep."
The movie is headed for a long, brutal and bloody payoff, one that may be too over-the-top for public consumption right about now. The jarring last act also hinges on one extremely unlikely coincidence; it's a sadly loopy turn for a film that otherwise revels in verisimilitude.