SHOOTING BLANKS: Training Day (2001)
Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Written by David Ayer
Starring Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke
Before we begin, a bit of an introduction. If any of you happened to read my piece “A Strange History of Souses”, liked it, and are also fans of film, this may be just what you’re looking for. If not, it might still be what you’re looking for, because I’m extraordinarily bad at judging what will and won’t appeal to people. Anyway, the idea of this new feature on SRDMH is to examine some films, hopefully ones that haven’t been dissected to death, and really look at them in the context of their place in history, culture, and the film canon at large. It’s not exactly a review and it’s not exactly a collection of “favorites”, as some (or hell, maybe many) will be very flawed. Shooting Blanks will be more of an examination of movies for people looking to get a little more out of film writing than a star writing and a plot summary. The goal is to encourage people to revisit some of these films or discover them for the first time. All comments and feedback are welcome and encouraged.
When I first conceived of this concept, I was bereft of Internet in my tidy new home office setup, and so I sketched out a rough working draft of the main points I wanted to hit, but then sort of put it in a drawer and forgot about it while I got more of the apartment together. I’m glad I waited, because in the past few weeks, the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown at the hands of the Ferguson Police Department and the clashes between outraged citizens and a highly militarized police force have brought a very heated and contentious conversation concerning the relationship between ethnic minorities and police officers back to the forefront of the American consciousness.
In that light, it seems appropriate to kick off this feature with a film about police officers that has become more and more problematic as time goes on. When it was first released, Training Day seemed explosive in some ways, as a cop movie that seemed to target the institution of American law enforcement as a whole. It wasn’t the first time that mainstream movie-going audiences were presented with the issue of cops as bad guys, but Training Day differed from the “few bad apples” technique and insisted that the problem was systemic. Still, upon a recent viewing, it was apparent that the film hasn’t exactly aged well. Especially in light of events like the Michael Brown shooting (and a cavalcade of events like it), David Ayer’s story of a greenhorn narc’s unwitting stumble into a cesspool of corruption seems almost quaint, and possibly insulting.
Ethan Hawke does a fine job as Jake Hoyt, the trainee of the titular “training day”, who grow steadily horrified at the unfolding picture that his superior, Detective Alonzo Harris, paints for him. However, it’s Denzel Washington’s turn as Harris that really carries the movie, a role that garnered the actor a well-deserved Oscar win (beating out Russell Crowe for the criminally overrated but thankfully, largely forgotten A Beautiful Mind). Washington plays Harris with a magnetic and sinister charisma that practically emanates from the screen, and lends Ayer’s pull-no-punches tirades an air of credibility, even as the character transitions from admirable anti-hero to broken criminal. Perhaps the most memorable scene in the entire film comes near the conclusion of Harris’ arc; as Hawke walks away with his boss’s blood money, Washington flings one final lecture at his retreating back, and then turns his ire on the assembled crowd of onlookers, all of whom are black or Latino, and all of whom have grown tired of his iron-fisted rule over their neighborhood.
The most relevant question to consider when watching Training Day leads down a rabbit hole from which, seemingly, no answer can emerge: how different would the film be if Harris, the film’s chief antagonist, were played by a white actor? The most immediate and obvious answer is that without the dynamite performance, Training Day would collapse under the weight of its assembled weaker points (though released in 2001, the film suffers from the same pulpy slickness afflicting many 90’s era thrillers, sometimes skirting the line between drama parody). However, it’s hard to deny that the film’s thematic takeaways become somewhat muddled when examined closely. As is, Training Day can, at times, feel like a movie about a lone, crusading (white) cop standing up against the insidious evil of Los Angeles, most of whom happen to have dark faces. There is one scene in which a bunch of rich old white guys from the LAPD top brass discuss the fate of Harris with varying levels of condescension, but it comes off as a bit of an afterthought.
I’m giving writer David Ayer the benefit of the doubt and assuming that he and Fuqua (and whatever studio executives were also involved in casting) decided that Washington was the best person for the role, and had no real interest in cracking open the complexities of a justice system that ends up pursuing and prosecuting a disproportionate number of black men. It should be noted that Ayer has since become somewhat known as the go-to guy for movies about cop culture (see Harsh Times and the markedly better End of Watch), and though he is admirably candid about portraying his fictional officers in a less than flattering light, one has to wonder if Ayer was hesitant about how marketable Training Day might have seemed if it were a more sharp indictment of police corruption and the very real abusive power dynamic that has existed between law enforcement and ethnic minorities in the United States since the country’s inception. A draft of the script dated April, 2001, contains enough context clues to firmly establish Alonzo Harris’ identity as a black man, but Ayer wrote the first draft in 1995, so there’s no real way of knowing how the character transformed between the script’s inception and the eventual involvement of Washington.
The point is, despite a dynamite performance from Washington and adequate direction from Fuqua, Training Day, a movie I unabashedly loved when I was 16, and one I still nostalgically cling to, missed a grand opportunity. Hindsight, of course, is always 20/20, and it’s hard to fault Ayer or anybody else involved with the film’s development for jumping at the change to have Denzel Washington in the lead. If anything, while Training Day may have aged poorly, as all films of a certain time and place do, it has taken on a somewhat more compelling quality as a sort of time capsule, a glimpse at how artists approached issues like police corruption and the racial tensions of urban America in a world that hadn’t yet been completely cracked open by the Internet. Hopefully, as time progresses, and these sorts of abuses of power and the consequences of institutionalized racism are more doggedly pursued by the media and the public, more incisive critiques of these sorts of issues will grace the screens of megaplexes. Until then, Training Day serves as a throwback to the 1990s in many ways, not the least of which is how neat and wrapped-up tales of cops and bad guys seemed to be, even when they were trying not to be.