20 years later: Revisiting Training Day
Denzel Washington has played a wide variety of characters throughout his four-decade career, from towering historical figures like Malcolm X to action heroes to Shakespearean figures, including in the upcoming The Tragedy of Macbeth. He’s a nine-time Oscar nominee, although his only Best Actor win came in one of his only turns as a full-on villain.
That movie was Training Day, directed by Antoine Fuqua, which hit screens in October of 2001, twenty years ago this week. The film, written by future Suicide Squad director David Ayer, came out just weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks but was very much not in keeping with the cultural deference to first responders of those times (the film did have its release delayed by two weeks.) In fact, Washington played one of the more monstrous on-screen cops in the history of cinema.
Training Day was set over the course of a single day, in which young cop Jake (Ethan Hawke, also Oscar-nominated for the film) is trained and evaluated by police detective Alonzo Harris (Washington), a powerful cop who’s also ruthlessly and violently corrupt.
When he’s not collecting protection money, he’s stealing from drug dealers, or staging crime scenes. He’s also, due to an ill-advised shooting in Las Vegas, marked for death by the Russian mob.
Set about a decade after the L.A. riots and just a few years after the O.J. Simpson verdict, the film also followed the Rampart scandal in Los Angeles in the 1990s, which entailed a group of police officers busted for massive corruption. Some speculate may have been tied to the murders of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. The scandal has also inspired a huge amount of popular culture, some with a Tupac/Biggie angle and some night, although especially The Shield, which debuted on FX just a few months after the release of Training Day.
Training Day painted a picture, not unlike that of The Shield– a Los Angeles where the cops may be dirty, but the streets are choked with dangerous criminals. There’s an implication, sometimes stated outright, that the streets are so dangerous that the corruption is justified and necessary.
The film is famous for a few things. There’s Washington’s “King Kong ain’t got nothing on me” speech, the scene in which he makes Hawke smoke PCP, and the scene where Washington meets in a restaurant with a brain trust of veteran cops, and one tells the story of an accused thief who had gotten a hold of peanut butter and “packed his ass crack with it.”
The film is also full of cameos by many who would become much more famous later, like Eva Mendes (as Washington’s naked mistress), and Cliff Curtis (as a gang member.) There are even separate appearances by both Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg.
But most of all, Training Day is remembered for Denzel Washington’s rocket engine of a performance, which while so different from most of his performances, continues to stand as one the best.
Two decades on, Washington and Hawke remain movie stars in good standing, while the director, Fuqua, remains busy; his remake of The Guilty arrived on Netflix within the last week. As for the Training Day “franchise,” a TV version aired for a season on CBS, while a Harris origin story is also supposedly in the works. It’s the sort of thing that might be just right for these times.