Sometimes a great actor is all you need to turn a formula cop flick into knockout action entertainment. Denzel Washington, who just keeps getting better, is a sparking, snapping live wire in the role of Detective Sgt. Alonzo Harris, the leader of an elite LAPD undercover narcotics squad. “King Kong ain’t got shit on me,” says Alonzo, flexing his star muscles for good guys and bad guys alike. These days it’s hard to tell which is which, especially for Alonzo. After thirteen years of operating above the law, this is one cop you don’t get a fix on in twenty-four hours.
Unfortunately, a single training day is all the time greenhorn cop Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) gets to size up the situation and convince Alonzo he deserves to be the sixth man on his team. The older cop tools up in a purring black Monte Carlo, pulls the white boy in beside him and proceeds to provide a street education that has the kid’s head spinning. In minutes, Alonzo coaxes Jake into trying PCP as on-the-job training. “You gotta be a wolf to catch a wolf,” says Alonzo, who introduces Jake to dealers, both big (Scott Glenn) and small (Snoop Dogg excels as a wheelchair-bound hustler).
That’s when bodies start to pile up and deeper levels of corruption are revealed. Everyday police work — Jake makes a stop to save a young Hispanic girl from being raped in an alley — strikes Alonzo as a waste of time. This father of four children, with his latest lady (Charlotte Ayanna) stashed away in Watts, has a more pressing problem with the Russian mafia in Las Vegas and a murder he needs to pin on someone.
In the film’s second half, Antoine Fuqua — the video whiz turned feature director (The Replacement Killers) — lets the action fly off the rails, stretching the long arm of coincidence like Silly Putty. And what had been tasty if overcooked dialogue in the David Ayer script bubbles over into rank absurdity.
What saves the day is the ace teamwork of Washington and Hawke, who stage a riveting sparring match. Hawke rises splendidly to the challenges of what could have been the dull role of the film’s moral center. But this is Washington’s show, his Scarface, if you will, and his smiling, seductive monster is a thrilling creation that gives Training Day all the bite it needs.