Unlike most recent Washington films, Training Day doesn't invite us to identify with his character; he's not the protagonist. That role belongs to Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke), Harris's new partner; he's the classic fresh-faced, ambitious kid, straight out of the Valley, looking for the fast track to the detectives' bureau. (Think of a shallower, less sophisticated version of L.A. Confidential's Ed Exley.) It's clear from the opening scenes that a tour of duty with Alonzo is going to be the fast track to something -- at the very least, an intensive education in the ways of L.A.'s meanest streets.
The title Training Day is cleverly literal: David Ayer's script takes place over a single day, from morning till past midnight, as Jake gets a crash course in how things really work. His mentor, Alonzo, is a master at working the streets: He's allegedly undercover, but the dealers and bystanders know he's a cop. (It's obvious he's not a low-profile guy from the moment we see his bitchin' 1978 Monte Carlo low-rider, complete with hydraulics.) What they don't know for sure is whether he's the dirtiest cop in town -- or simply pretending to be. It's a question at the heart of the film and one that isn't resolved until the film's final quarter.
Acting like a Zen master, Alonzo seems determined to push all of Jake's buttons. He repeatedly swerves from affable tutor to aggressive psycho and back again -- threatening him at gunpoint, forcing him to drink and take drugs ("To be truly effective, a good narcotics agent must know and love narcotics," he explains), offering abuse on top of praise. The sum of his behavior is presumably part of some pedagogical exercise. Or is it?
As the day wears on, the duo encounters a cross-section of the interlocking circles of the cop-criminal power structure. They run into a crippled street dealer (Snoop Dogg) and a barrio gang member (Cliff Curtis); an older cop (Scott Glenn), who appears to be Alonzo's former partner; and white-collar political heavies (Tom Berenger, Raymond J. Barry, and Harris Yulin), who use Alonzo to do their dirty work. (Macy Gray and Dr. Dre also show up; it's a Vibe photo shoot.) This experience seems bound to turn Jake from a dewy-eyed idealist into a cynical nihilist in just one long day.
Ayer's script is filled with surprises, most of which stem from our constantly shifting perspective of Alonzo. While Ayer says he started writing the script in 1995, it's hard to believe that the story wasn't inspired (or at least deeply affected) by the Rampart scandal -- the worst such affair in the LAPD's hardly scandal-free history -- which first reached the public in 1998 and has continued to make headlines ever since. Washington even seems to be coiffed and made up to look a little like Rampart linchpin-cum-informant Rafael Perez.
There are a few questionable elements in Ayer's script, many of which result from its one-day time scheme. Our suspension of disbelief has to endure a number of assaults; for instance, as Alonzo exposes more of his dark side -- to an unproven partner, on his first day -- than makes sense. The story eventually gives reasons for some of this apparent indiscretion, but that doesn't stop these scenes from hurting the story's credibility along the way. Perhaps more crucially, one extreme and unlikely coincidence becomes vital to the plot. In a less realistic film, this wouldn't be a problem, but in a gritty portrait of street life like Training Day, it sticks out as egregiously as the pale Jake does in the ghettos into which Alonzo takes him.
Washington, always a highly controlled performer, clearly enjoys the opportunity to trade on his image; while he has often played compromised characters, he has never before had a chance to go this far into the moral heart of darkness. Hawke seems flimsy and insubstantial in comparison, but it's hard to knock his performance when he was obviously cast for precisely those qualities. Most of all, however, this represents a big leap forward for Fuqua, whose two previous features -- the 1998 Chow Yun-Fat vehicle The Replacement Killers and the 2000 Jamie Foxx action comedy Bait -- were more impressive for their visual flair than their storytelling or characterization. With Training Day, he has finally hit his stride.