Denzel Washington and director Antoine Fuqua reunited this year to make The Equalizer (review will be posted in a few days). I recently rewatched their first collaboration, Training Day.
Training Day is far older than I remembered (2001), which I think is all the more remarkable when you consider that the film that Denzel Washington made the same year was the inspirational Remember the Titans. His corrupt cop character in Training Day could not be more different than his stubborn, noble football coach in Remember the Titans: guess which role won him the Oscar.
Washington is always more interesting for me when he takes on roles that have deep flaws, and I think that if I was to watch Training Day in a Denzel double bill, I would choose to watch it with Man on Fire. Both films are about morally compromised characters, and both feature a blistering performance from Washington.
In case you have not seen the film, I won’t spoil it for you. Washington plays a deeply corrupt narcotics cop in Los Angeles; Ethan Hawke (looking both boyish and seedy) is his naive trainee. The film takes place over the course of a day, and as it goes on, Hawke’s character is pulled more and more into the shadows, and it transpires that Washington has a hidden agenda
The screenplay is by David Ayer, and a lot of people in Hollywood were surprised that a white screenwriter had captured so well the speech rhythms and attitudes of Black and Latino gangsters (Ayer grew up in a gang neighbourhood). Some producers were nervous about the film’s portrayal of less than virtuous police officers; the fairly frequent use of the N-word; and most of all, I suspect, the representation of gang-bangers as functioning members of their community instead of cartoonish villains.
Fuqua and his producers met with gang leaders and got permission to film in neighbourhoods where filming is usually forbidden, and it lends the film a great sense of authenticity. Several of the background players are real-life gangsters, and at no point does the movie feel like a Hollywoodized version of cops and robbers. This is a film worlds away from Colors (which Fuqua despises), and they tried (and I think succeeded) to make a film that is a very unpatronising look at the so-called War on Drugs as it is lived and felt at street level. Washington and Hawke spent a good deal of time with undercover cops to prepare for the movie, and Cliff Curtis, who plays a gang leader, spent weeks hanging out with Latino gangs.
Washington`s character has long ago crossed the line; by any reasonable measure, he`s a dirty cop, but at the same time there is a rationale to much of his argument about street justice and the reality of drug-dealing. I think I admire his performance in this because of its subtlety; although you might remember it for his `King Kong ain`t got shit on me!` speech near the end, for most of the film he`s rather quiet, very controlled, and quite menacing when he wants to be. Another actor might have seen the script and started chewing the scenery from the get-go. Hawke is equally good as a man who wants to believe that he`s doing the right thing in making arrests, and whose innocence is tested throughout the day by the Mephistophelean figure beside him in the car (Hawke was nominated for Best Supporting Actor).
The film also benefits from great casting in its supporting roles: Scott Glenn, Tom Berenger, Cliff Curtis, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dog, Eva Mendes, and a terrific Macy Gray.
I recorded a fluffcast discussing the film in depth, but due to a technical glitch the video and audio did not synch. Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise as I was having a particularly bad hair day.
I retained the audio and put it on Soundcloud. Warning: there are spoilers.