"The shit's chess, it ain't checkers," Denzel Washington tells Ethan Hawke in Training Day, which turns police work into an elaborate game, albeit a deadly one. That Washington's Alonzo Harris is an undercover cop comes as a joke, since he sports a black leather coat and platinum chains Ã la Shaft and drives a '68 Monte Carlo that's been souped up with hydraulics, tinted windows and a mahogany steering wheel. But even that's a joke, because this dude could walk down the mean streets of Los Angeles in his underwear and still strike fear in the hearts of anyone in his path. There's always been a sense that Washington was holding something back as an actor, hiding behind Sidney Poitier's skirt ' all those black martyrs, from Steven Biko to Malcolm X to Ruben "Hurricane" Carter. Well, now we know just what he was holding back: an evil so luxuriously cunning that it makes Shakespeare's Iago look like a boy scout.
Training Day, which Antoine Fuqua directed from a script by David Ayer, is like a role-reversal Othello, with Washington as the corrupter and Hawke, playing a lily-white cop on his first day in the narcotics division, as the corruptee. No, that's not right. It's like an Othello in which Washington is both Othello and Iago and Hawke is Desdemona, an innocent bystander. The movie has these two sharing a single day that stretches from five in the morning to late at night, and during that time Washington's Alonzo does such a number on Hawke's Jack ' alternately threatening and cajoling him ' that it's hard to tell whether the rookie will wind up quitting the force altogether or getting bumped up to detective. They meet for the first time at a diner, where the mentor has the protÃgÃ eating out of his hand within seconds. And what the protÃgÃ doesn't realize is that, even while he's trying to wriggle out, the fingers are slowing clenching into a fist.
Hawke, who always seems a little green, no matter what role he's in, is a perfect foil for Washington, who can make menace seductive and seduction menacing. Which is to say that Alonzo has us in the palm of his hand, too. Then we start to wriggle. For there's obviously a madness to his method ' forcing Jack to smoke a joint laced with PCP, for instance. But is there also a method to his madness? Or is he just a complete psycho? Trying to answer that question is what propels the movie forward. As does Fuqua's fastidious attention to keeping it real. Shot in the South Central neighborhoods it's set in, Training Day might have felt like a throwback to the nitty-gritty cop dramas of the '70s (Serpico, for example) were it not for Washington's sexy performance (which seems closer to Richard Gere in Internal Affairs) and an ending that's pure Hollywood. Still, I'll take that sexy performance any ol' day.