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Training Day

Training Day will forever have a place in my heart for introducing me to the term “poo butt ass” as an insult. It’s a film that I remember a lot of marketing for from when I was a kid watching MTV Base on the school holidays, I suppose because Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Macy Gray all have minor roles in it and they were the sort of headline names of the channel at the time. It’s amazing to think that Denzel Washington’s role in this made him only the second black winner of the Oscar for Best Actor. Not that I hold the Oscars with much reverence, but just as a litmus test for which direction popular opinion is traveling in, it’s a significant ribbon to attach to Training Day’s belt. And we got a great speech out of it.

Ethan Hawke plays a rookie policeman who’s trying his best to provide for his young family by getting a promotion into the narcotics division. We meet him on his training day, where he means the guy who’s about to determine whether he’s joining the narcotics division or not, played by Denzel Washington. The dynamic between them is uncomfortable from the very beginning, and to portray the power balance between them there is quite a bit of clunky dialogue. In a scene set in a cafe, Denzel is seen reading a newspaper while Ethan keeps distracting him with nervous excitement, to which Denzel quips something along the lines of “this paper is full of shit but it’s entertaining, and if you won’t let me read it then you better entertain me”. It’s all the kind of thing that you convince yourself you’d have said in an argument that you just had, but didn’t. After an extended tug-of-war between them, they find a sense of mutual respect, and then it becomes a west coast hood movie from the perspective of the police rather than the people like usual. Except the police in this still have hydraulics on their cars and largely act like the characters in other films that aren’t police, so the novelty of a flip in narrative really only works on the surface.

As usual, Denzel Washington performs this character with a sort of understated as well as overstated confidence, and to be honest he delivers more than one line with a confidence that only he could make convincing from such a strange script. Ethan Hawke is similarly cast well as the awkward sidekick who doesn’t quite feel comfortable in his own skin. And to be honest, who would with Denzel Washington telling them that if they want a son rather than a daughter then they should get their wife to call him? The supporting cast is more of a pick-n-mix of big names of the time. Dr. Dre and Macy Gray are quite clearly not actors, even when their characters are essentially stylised versions of themselves. That said, Snoop Dogg puts in a good enough shift that I began to wonder why he never starred in much else after this.

It’s quite obvious that Antoine Fuqua’s career before this was largely in music videos. Not just because of the casting of major music stars, but just that any collection of scenes from this could easily be stitched together to make your average late 90s or early 00s hip hop video. Usually, that works really well for this kind of hood movie, but when it’s told from the perspective of the police there’s something that just feels off. I don’t think that’s a problem with the presentation alone, though, I think the film suffers from not having much nuance. If there was more effort put into showing the corruption in the police as a systematic issue, rather than just that Denzel Washington’s character is playing a complete prick, perhaps it wouldn’t come across as so plastic and phoned in. That said, there is one scene that absolutely needs to go, and that’s the one where we see what is probably the worst depiction of the effects of drugs in cinema history.

Training Day is ultimately just an okay film that works best if it’s forgotten not long after watching it. I’m sure it has a good intention behind it, but it just doesn’t hit hard enough where it needs to in order to put something special together. In telling the story from the perspective of the police, there was a chance to make something critical of the institution, told in a medium that’s usually critical of them from the outside. Instead of that, all we really get is a hang-out movie between an odd couple who gradually find respect for one another. I suppose that’s fine, but that’s all it is.

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