[box cover]

Training Day

While the name Satan may invoke a variety of reprehensible caricatures in popular culture (a figure with horns, cloven hooves, a tail), anybody who spent time in Sunday school knows just the opposite — Satan is beautiful. Dust off that leather-bound King James and have a look at Ezekiel 28, as Lucifer is condemned by God: "Thou was perfect in thy ways from the day that thou wast created, till inequity was found in thee.... Thine heart was lifted up because of thy beauty; thou hast corrupted thy wisdom by reason of thy brightness." In the history of Judeo-Christian scripture, Satan alternately has been portrayed as God's chosen prosecutor, a fallen angel who wanted to be like God, and a tempter of mankind. Dante portrayed Satan as a horrific creature. Milton considered him erudite and grand. But perhaps Goethe got it right in Faust by recognizing that the essential characteristic of Mephistopheles is not merely his abstract beauty, but rather his palpable seductiveness — the devil does not approach mortals simply to shock or horrify them. Rather, he comes in disguise, and with an offer on the table. Various films have considered satanic figures over the years, going all the way back to Fritz Lang's 1922 Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler. However, few movies have tackled the theme with such vigor, and from as far out of left field, as Antoine Fuqua's Training Day (2001), which functions as both an entertaining cop thriller and a crisp religious allegory.

Ethan Hawke stars in Training Day as ambitious LAPD officer Jake Hoyt, who dreams of getting off patrol duty and becoming a detective — which is possible, with the right ticket. That opportunity comes when Det. Alonzo Harris (a mercurial Denzel Washington) accepts him as a rookie on his narcotics team, a five-man undercover unit that patrols L.A.'s worst neighborhoods looking for big collars. Hoyt eagerly takes the assignment, and he's quickly willing to overlook Alonzo's unusual temperament, as the domineering cop insists that there's one set of rules for patrolmen and quite another for his elite squad. Cruising the mean streets in Alonzo's tricked-out Monte Carlo, Hoyt intends to learn the rules of the unit, but he finds some of Alonzo's decisions unsettling — Alonzo encourages him to smoke some grass, and the narc is happy to let most offenders walk away from their crimes, including a pair of crackhead rapists who violate a 14-year-old schoolgirl. It's not "by the book," but Alonzo justifies every decision he makes with pragmatic responses — "To protect the sheep to gotta catch the wolf, and it takes a wolf to catch a wolf," he lectures his young trainee. And after every instance Hoyt gives way, until he learns that Alonzo recently crossed the Russian mafia and needs a lot of cash to stay alive. But by that point he's already become a pawn in Alonzo's much larger scheme of things.

*          *          *

With a smart script from longtime Angelino David Ayer and even-handed direction by Antoine Fuqua, Training Day would be a good cop movie in most circumstances. What elevates it to something more special is Denzel Washington, who delivers one of the finest performances of his career — and his credentials are nothing to sniff at. Few actors have the charisma to play Alonzo Harris, a rough-and-tumble investigator who stays alive by knowing how people react to given behaviors, and in any set of circumstances he alternately must be brutal, kind, arrogant, sensitive, terrifying, reasonable, intimidating, and introspective. But in all moments Alonzo is a seducer, aware that his various poses exist to create desired effects, and not only with the street hoodlums he confronts but also with Hoyt, a green rookie looking for street cred. With a role that requires less intensity, Ethan Hawke as Hoyt may not win as many accolades as Washington, but he actually has an equally difficult task, as he is our conduit to Alonzo's world, and he must create subtle, convincing reactions to the events that surround him. Despite helming the miserable Replacement Killers, director Fuqua atones for his sins this time around by having a clear understanding of his material, and allowing his actors to carry the load with subdued camera-work that never upstages the story. Fuqua also brings some verisimilitude to the picture by shooting on location in some of L.A.'s roughest neighborhoods and using gang members as extras, all contributing to the film's slow descent into a hell where Hoyt must decide who he is, and why he's a cop. Like David Fincher's remarkable Fight Club, Fuqua's Training Day offers an incisive story of young man's struggle to define his identity by facing his worst fear — a fear that initially approaches him as a mentor, and a friend.

Warner's DVD edition of Training Day offers a clean anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio that captures the action as well as the rap/hip-hop soundtrack. Features include a commentary with director Fuqua, who shares insights into working with his actors and how the film came to be made; a 15-min. behind-the-scenes featurette; 12 minutes of deleted scenes, all of which are worth watching thanks to Denzel's presence; music videos for "#1" by Nelly and "Got You" by Pharoae Monch; the theatrical trailer; and cast and crew notes. Snap-case.

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