Police State

Unexpected lessons: Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke in Training Day.

Denzel Washington has often been criticized for playing characters whose travails are meant to uplift the human spirit. That’s a surefire way to reap Oscar nominations – and dull the talent. But even when he’s deeply mired in affirmation, Washington often flaunts a mean streak that undercuts the piousness. As the football coach at a newly integrated southern high school in Remember the Titans, for example, Washington was ornery, inflamed, and his anger carried an artist’s pride. Washington’s death-ray glare may have looked out of place in a treacly, inspirational movie like Titans, but it’s the emblem of his new film, Training Day, where he plays Alonzo Harris, an undercover LAPD narcotics detective who barrels through the black and Latino inner-city streets in his souped-up Monte Carlo, cocksure in the knowledge that he commands them. Sheathed inside his vast black leather jacket, festooned with neck chains – his badge and his crucifix swing side-by-side – Alonzo is certainly an avenger. But is he an avenging angel or does he come from the other, lower place?

Rookie cop Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) has one day to ride with Alonzo and prove himself. If he does, he can join Alonzo’s elite narc squad and maybe make it to detective. “Are you a wolf or a sheep?” Alonzo asks the rookie, and the question carries an unintended double meaning: Any actor playing opposite Washington at his fiercest had better be a wolf, too, and for a while it seems like the hang-loose Hawke is going to be gobbled alive. But Hawke comes through with a shambling propulsion; his Jake is as rabid as Alonzo, but his ferocity is bound up with idealism. He still thinks he can make a difference in the streets, and he believes in doing things by the book, while Alonzo believes in getting a piece of the action and extracting justice any way he can. We’re supposed to see Jake as a greenhorn version of Alonzo, before corruption and indifference rotted out the older man’s soul.

As a genre, cop movies traditionally carry a lot of political baggage, and Training Day is no exception. The director, Antoine Fuqua, and his screenwriter, David Ayer, aren’t content to give us a standard black-white buddy cop movie. As the melodrama accelerates more and more improbably into a yowl of persecution and paranoia, it’s clear that the filmmakers are reaching for the Conradian: Forget Apocalypse Now, Redux or Original Recipe – this movie wants to be your very own Heart of Darkness. Its dawn-to-dawn odyssey is structured not simply as an indictment of corrupt cops, which L.A. notoriously has in abundance, but also as an indictment of the awfulness inside each of us.

As volatile as Training Day often is, there’s still a chasm between its ambition and its achievement. The main problem is that Alonzo, all too rapidly, turns into a species of monster. In a way, Denzel Washington has done his career makeover too well: He’s so good at playing bad here that it becomes easy for us to dismiss Alonzo and his narcs as crazies – rotten apples in an otherwise upstanding system. We never really see in Alonzo the rookie-idealist he reputedly once was; like Iago, he seems to be a villain fully formed.

The disquieting moral aspect of most “serious” cop movies is the understanding that the police do the dirty work we prefer not to know about; in racially charged situations, that disquiet, especially among liberal viewers, is heightened even more. Training Day never grapples with the complicated issue of how a black cop, or a white cop for that matter, truly reacts to enforcing the law in these poverty-stricken black and Latino enclaves.

Alonzo’s foulness, except for one brief, unconvincing scene with some city power brokers, is never linked to any kind of larger, institutional corruption. Whatever one might think of the politics of a movie like Dirty Harry, at least its agenda was out in the open: Harry Callahan became an unrepentant rogue cop because that was the only way to unshackle himself from the liberal courts and get the job done. Alonzo is a rogue cop because, we are made to understand, he has crossed over to the dark side. To control the streets, and stoke his demons, he commits atrocities.

There’s a better, more righteous way in this film, and it’s reflected in Jake’s bruised, valiant face. (Jake’s valor would have more resonance if he had overcome some Alonzo-like darkness in his soul.) And yet the movie tries to have it both ways by depicting many of the criminals, particularly the Latinos, as hulking, tattooed demons. Thus, Training Day plays on the racial fears of the white audience. The implication is that, if this is who we are being protected from, then it’s okay for bad apples like Alonzo to brutalize them.

The filmmakers may think they’re setting up a tone of high-flown moral uncertainty here, but what comes across is more like commercial opportunism. On a purely visceral level, Training Day is easily the most exciting movie out there right now, but as a morality tale with anything large on its mind, it’s a cop-out.

Lucrecia Martel, the first-time director of the Argentinean film La Ciénaga, has a gift for artful languor. Her movie is about the summertime reunion of an extended family in a rundown northern country estate, and it takes a while to sort out who everybody is. Tropical rains have turned everything swampy, and thunder is a constant obbligato on the soundtrack. Martel doesn’t try to unify the various family stories into a fully developed, syncopated narrative, and her explorations of character are vignette-thin. But there’s a new sensibility at work here, wry yet lushly disaffected, and it will be worth watching what she does next … I hope that everybody’s need to see fluffy, feel-good comedies right now doesn’t result in a lot of airhead movies being elevated to the status of winners. Serendipity, set mostly in New York, is a star-crossed romantic comedy with John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale, and it owes more than a bit to Sleepless in Seattle. I’ve never understood why filmmakers construct romances in which the leads hardly spend any time together. In the case of Serendipity, the answer may be that no one knew what to do with these two once they hooked up.

Training Day
Starring Denzel Washington.
La Ciénaga
Directed by Lucretia Martel.
Starring John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale.

Police State