One of the most remarkable facets of Denzel Washington's genius as an actor is his ability to read and deliver his lines in such a way that we in the audience see beyond the surface meaning and comprehend that there are other, more ambiguous levels to be understood when we hear the words. It's a rare quality, which he shares only with Kevin Spacey among actors working today. In his best work he gives us not just the lines but the person, even the whole life, behind them.
Unhappily, that quality is missing in "Training Day." In a role that cries out for the subtlety of hints and allusions, Washington is so blatant in his line readings that we are left with a caricature and not a character. Where he should be silky smooth and knowing, his Alonzo Harris - a corrupt narcotics detective taking trainee Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) on his first day of street work - is just a series of tough-cop clichés. (Part of the problem lies in the direction by Antoine Fuqua, who seems to have insisted on miking Washington so closely that every line comes out at top volume, with no room for subtlety.)
All of which is a shame, because the story and character seem tailor-made for Washington. Harris is a legend in the L.A.P.D., and Jake is rightly intimidated to be given the chance to be a junior member of his unit. But as the day goes on, Jake sees more and more of the corruption that comes so easily to Alonzo. But instead of letting the corruption play out as it would in real life, there is a contrived setup leading to the film's ultimate payoff, which seems to operate under the old Code of Decency, in which bad people cannot be seen to win. Somehow, we're told, last weekend in Las Vegas Alonzo beat to death a member of a Russian Mafia gang, and now must buy his own life back from them with a $1 million payoff. It's a stupid gimmick and undercuts everything we know and, strangely, admire about Alonzo.
This very bad man also knows the cliché that one cannot confront evil in hand-to-hand combat without doing evil things oneself - a position the United States seems anxious to try for itself in these post-September 11th days. Or perhaps one can, but it is something the United States has not done in any case, at least since the end of World War II.
As the day goes on, Jake - who comes complete with loving wife and baby daughter - and Alonzo, who comes complete with abandoned wife and 6-year-old son - find themselves stuck more and more deeply in the kind of corruption that only very bright and totally amoral men can stomach. It becomes a test for Jake, who is offered chance after chance to turn to the dark side, so to speak, and as he turns them down he becomes less a real person and more a collection of moral values masquerading as a human being. And Hawke, never the most expressive of actors, falls back on a narrow range of professional tics - surprise, outrage, surprise, outrage.
We're left with the feeling that if only the film's script had been tweaked one more time, and if only a better director had been chosen, and if only Ethan Hawke…. Too many films these days are nothing but a collection of if-onlys. In the rush to turn out product, it's obvious that the art of film is the big loser.