Agreat performance makes its own rules. It can allow a director to look better than he has, transform and heighten a script in ways even the writer may not have anticipated, add strength and balance to a co-star's work. In these ways and more, Denzel Washington's exceptional acting elevates "Training Day" to a place it wouldn't otherwise occupy.
Washington is an actor who seems to be always pushing himself to go beyond where he's been before. And even the edge he displayed in "The Hurricane," isn't preparation for what he does with the slashing, streetwise abrasiveness of LAPD Det. Sgt. Alonzo Harris.
The head of his own undercover narcotics unit, Harris is a fearless, ostentatious law unto himself. Wearing gold chains and black leather and driving a customized 1978 Monte Carlo low rider that doubles as his office, Harris uses a piercing stare and charisma you can taste to intimidate everyone in his path, especially rookie cop Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke). It's a driving, galvanic piece of acting that Washington seems to relish at least in part because he's fully aware how much of a departure it is. Equally surprising is how Washington's performance spurs on his key collaborators, who, at least on paper, do not look all that promising:
* Director Antoine Fuqua, a veteran maker of commercials and music videos with an eye for flash, didn't give any indication in previous features such as "The Replacement Killers" and "Bait" that he'd recognize, let alone know what to do with, a fully realized piece of acting.
* Co-star Hawke has worked consistently since his career-making performance in 1989's "Dead Poet's Society," but much of what he's done has had the indifferent impact of films such as "Great Expectations," "The Newton Boys" and "Snow Falling on Cedars."
* Screenwriter David Ayer's previously produced work, the submarine drama "U-571" and the street racing "The Fast and the Furious," showed a gift for keeping things moving rather than character-intensive dialogue.
Yet though you might not anticipate it, each of these had something to bring to the table that raised the possibility of better work. Fuqua, for instance, had the ability to create an L.A. street ambience infused with an essential wall-to-wall uneasiness. That Hawke playing a stubborn idealist, could hold his own against Washington. Also, he could be believable as the in-over-his head audience surrogate, a capable but inexperienced cop who could handle most things but wasn't prepared for the detective sergeant. And Ayer, who in part grew up in South-Central and was fascinated by the cop-criminal dynamic, brought a real-world sense of how police can cross the line that preceded the LAPD Rampart scandal by several years.
Washington, too, had something special to contribute aside from his great talent. He could, and shrewdly does, play off of the kind of decent characters he's always been associated with. So though it's apparent almost from the first moment that this is a policeman who bends the law, we cut him slack because the good-guy voice we're familiar with from Washington's previous roles make his explanations as plausible for us as they are for Jake Hoyt, who knows that Harris is a productive, 13-year veteran whose efforts have led to 15,000 man years in sentences.
"Training Day" (set entirely in a 24-hour period) opens at 5 a.m. with Hoyt, married and a new father, up and looking worried. He's asked for a tryout for Harris' unit because it's a path to promotion and higher pay, but he's not sure what he's in for. All he knows is that he's got 24 hours, "today and only today" in Harris' words, to show his superior he's worth being on the team. He doesn't know it, but his world is about to be turned first inside-out and then upside-down.
From the first moment they meet in a small coffee shop, his superior's forceful irascibility all but leaves Hoyt gasping for breath. Harris stops his car in the middle of an intersection if he feels like it, rousts people just to keep in shape, plays with everyone's mind just for the fun of it. Even relaxing and visiting old friend Roger (Scott Glenn), a retired LAPD veteran, the man is always playing the angles.
Yet it's key to this role and something Washington expertly conveys that Harris absolutely believes himself to be one of the good guys and is intent on convincing his young charge to feel the same. "To protect the sheep," he tells him, "you got to catch a wolf. It takes a wolf to catch a wolf." Do you, the film in part asks, have to be this kind of a vigilante to survive as a cop in the city? Is Harris simply a different kind of good guy than the ones we are used to. Is he fooling himself, fooling us, or both?
As "Training Day" moves toward an answer, it's got some unexpected strengths, at least initially. Ayer has put together a twisty plot that shrewdly changes direction, one of the rare thrillers it's difficult to stay ahead of. And much of the casting of smaller roles, such as Glenn as the ex-cop, Snoop Dogg as an unsavory street pusher and singer Macy Gray as a drug dealer's wife with an indescribable voice, is smartly done.
Unfortunately, "Training Day" can't sustain its momentum all the way to the close. The film is noticeably violent and its enthusiastic demonizing of "the hood," its well-executed intention of making crime-ridden neighborhoods seem as ugly and unpleasant as possible, gets a little wearing and leads to a savage and largely implausible ending. But even though "Training Day" doesn't resolve itself as well as it deserves and ends strictly cops-and-robbers style, it's given us some great acting and something to ponder. Not every cop show can lay claim to that.
MPAA rating: R, for strong brutal violence, pervasive language, drug content and brief nudity. Times guidelines: unsettling violence and an intentionally noxious ambience, not suitable for young teens.
Denzel Washington: Alonzo Harris
Ethan Hawke: Jake Hoyt
Scott Glenn: Roger
Macy Gray: Sandman's wife
Snoop Dogg: Sammy
Tom Berenger: Stan
In association with Village Roadshow Pictures and NPV Entertainment, an Outlaw production, released by Warner Bros. Director Antoine Fuqua. Producers Jeffrey Silver, Bobby Newmyer Executive producers Bruce Berman, Davis Guggenheim. Screenplay David Ayer. Cinematographer Mauro Fiore. Editor Conrad Buff. Costumes Michele Michel. Music Mark Mancina. Production design Naomi Shohan. Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes.
In general release.