Tell me a story
The video for Nelly’s rambunctious “#1,” the first single off the Training Day soundtrack, features the rapper playing two characters—a tough-looking criminal and the tougher-looking cop who takes him down. Nelly says that his doubled performance was inspired by Denzel Washington’s turn in the film as LA police sergeant Alonzo Harris. No matter what anyone else thinks of this cat, Nelly enthused in an interview with MTV News, Alonzo believes he’s number one and “nobody’s gonna take that away from him.”
Indeed. In Training Day, Denzel Washington, best known for playing big-hearted, heroic characters, brings the brutal and charismatic Alonzo to alarming life, but repellent as he is, you can’t take your eyes off him. While many critics have already observed that this change-up performance—“the performance of his career”—is the reason to see the movie, that’s only half of it. Alonzo is certainly a welcome stretch for Denzel, and the actor makes the most of the opportunity; mean and self-absorbed, snarling and seductive, the character would be cartoonish if not for Washington’s remarkable control of every moment he’s on screen.
At the same time, though, Alonzo is more than just a bad cop to beat all bad cops. For one thing, he’s a disturbing reminder of all kinds of well-known scandals, from OJ and Rodney King to the Biggie Smalls murder case and the Rampart anti-gang squad. For another, he takes the combination of police corruption, racism, and male-bully culture to a whole other metaphorical level. Alonzo’s self-delusory sense of power is a function not only of his own massive ego or rage (which would make him a standard movie villain), but also of his uncanny insight into his world, the very world that has created him.
And so, for all Alonzo’s hunky bravado and street-smart philosophizing, he is also deep, far beyond the fiction he inhabits. As a character, his threat is obvious: he commits violence because he knows this is how he can get what he wants, but mostly he commits violence because he can. He understands how the system works, whom he needs to keep satisfied, and how he can get around the law. He abuses a local dealer in a wheelchair, Blue (Snoop Dogg); keeps his hot-mama “old lady” Sara (Eva Mendes) available for afternoon sex; keeps trunks of money stashed with an old drinking buddy (Scott Glenn); harasses another dealer’s wife (Macy Gray, who is entirely convincing as a mad-as-hell junkie-mom), and maintains his own crack beat-down squad (including a detective played by Dr. Dre, on his way to Ice-T-dom, perhaps?), all because he can. But even aside from these plot points (which the film exploits to aptly unnerving effects), Alonzo poses another threat, and this one, Training Day does not engage. This threat lies in his embodiment of a cultural moment, an anxiety and ethos, his representativeness rather than his deviance. Contrary to standard mythology, where the scary black man is “merely” depraved or symptomatic, unable to help his dysfunction, Alonzo knows who he is and how he came to be. He is the consummate street product.
It is in this capacity that Alonzo is reduced to cliche, so that he can be contained and punished, his insights and broader significance rejected. That is, he is turned into a straight-up movie outlaw, checked so that order can be restored and viewers can go home feeling reassured: good wins out, after all.
Sadly, in its effort to restore this order, Antoine Fuqua’s film, written by David Ayer, resorts to the corniest of contrivances and excesses. Chief among these is Alonzo’s newbie partner, Jake (Ethan Hawke). A nice-kid husband and new-father-to-be, Jake is scruffy and sweet; he might be the younger, dumber brother of Brad Pitt’s character in Seven. It’s an impossible part. Jake is so well-meaning and righteous that he turns down suitcases full of cash in front of some very scary looking would-be partners, so naive that he’s shocked to see Alonzo murder an ostensible friend in cold blood, and so slow on the uptake that he ends up alone in a room full of card-playing Latino thugs who hate his self-confident, badge-brandishing guts. The role is so silly—tilting from blatant fear to tentative admiration to awesome gallantry in the name of bland good-guyness—that I kind of feel sorry for Hawke, who does his best to keep up with Washington, but, honestly, he stands no chance: Jake spends a third of the movie fucked up on a PCP-laced joint that Alonzo has forced him to smoke, while trying not to be shocked by Alonzo’s outrageousness and trying to do the right thing in a city where it just doesn’t seem to matter.
The problem is that Training Day is supposed to be Jake’s story, and so his compulsion to do the right thing is treated as rational and even admirable. Jake is pre-jaded; Alonzo is way-jaded. You first see Alonzo from his naive perspective, so he looks menacing and enigmatic, seated in a diner booth, his gold chains heavy on his neck, his black skully marking his profound distance from Jake’s experience. (The film that might be made from Alonzo’s point of view is, of course, far too dicey and discomforting, a version of police corruption and thug-life as the norm instead of the aberration.) Jake is so nervous about making a good impression that he can’t shut up during Alonzo’s breakfast. Annoyed, Alonzo tells the kid, “Tell me a story.” Jake searches his memory files, comes up with some amusing cop-mishap-tale, but all Alonzo hears is Jake’s lack of nerve, sexual aggression, and self-aggrandizement. Jake’s story is emphatically not Alonzo’s story.
The only time Jake sees Alonzo even vaguely unsettled is during one of those dark-shadowed posh-restaurant meetings with a group of suits (among them, Tom Berenger, Raymond J. Barry, and Harris Yulin, rating 10, 7, and 4 on the smarm scale, respectively) that always happen in corrupt cop movies. These guys imagine themselves as untouchable as Alonzo imagines himself, though of course, they don’t carry large weapons or wear fat gold chains. They just have money and connections (their interest in Alonzo has to do with a crime he may have committed while in Vegas, just one of the film’s overt references to the Rampart scandal). Looking grim, they warn their “go-to boy” to get whatever mess he’s in under “control,” and he smiles and shuffles, just a bit. In this scene, the film gestures toward a larger picture that it otherwise resists considering. But seeing as it’s staged for Jake’s benefit, the scene also plays as one of those predictable moments where the bad guy’s vulnerabilities are revealed.
More troubling than the film’s point of view is Training Day‘s central conceit, that the many events that so shock Jake all take place in one day. Alonzo uses that long day to introduce Jake to all kinds of secrets: down-low drug busts, big guns, cash stashes, even his own neighborhood and home (this seems a particularly strange instance of self-exposure: I suppose it could illustrate his self-assurance, but mostly, it just seems idiotic). Jake is so obviously a device that you’re not inclined to accompany him—much less identify with him—on this ride, especially when an unconvincing coincidence prompts an extremely hardcore homeboy to spare his life, and when, in a moment of crisis, Alonzo’s own child chooses the strange white man over poppy. Most revealing of the film’s inability to follow through on its own systemic critique (of the system that has produced Alonzo), comes when the black and Latino community throws in with Jake against Alonzo. While it’s understandable that they despise Alonzo, since he’s been exploiting and abusing them for years, their instant faith in and support of a white cop is absolutely implausible.
Plausibility is plainly not Training Day‘s concern. It’s more interested in images and ideas than practicalities. Fair enough. Still, the white-guy heroics are even more too bad than usual here, because they come off as a last-minute band-aid for all sorts of social and political damage. Alonzo is in love with himself and mean to everyone else, that much is clear and compelling. But his emotional and political mechanics are well worth exploring, and the movie is so impressed with its own gorgeous visuals (all urban-grainy imagery and jumpy editing) that it doesn’t attend to its greatest asset—the complications of this huge and ferocious character.