Photo by Robert Zuckerman

Training Day, a direly familiar story about a bad-to-the-bone cop and the gung-ho rookie who rides shotgun with him, is one of those movie equivalents of a freeway pileup — it’s a mess, at once insistently watchable and a total dead end. The film was directed by Antoine Fuqua, who in his debut feature, The Replacement Killers, turned Chow Yun Fat into as unlikely a man of action as Steven Seagal, and written by David Ayer, whose credits include The Fast and the Furious and the submarine drama U-571. Both director and writer are being heavily sold as having plenty of street cred, perhaps as a means of warding off questions about their filmmaking cred. Given the script, it’s no wonder. Ayer writes dialogue that pops — he’s a master of insults — but the story he’s come up with is rubbish. For his part, Fuqua has done himself a favor by studying David Fincher’s work, particularly Seven, and the new film is a leap for the young director in terms of rhythm and mise en scène; no longer do the characters or the audience get lost between edits. Still, as with many directors who love the look of bodies in violent motion, Fuqua doesn’t grasp that where he puts his camera is where he puts his sympathies, and ours — and the camera, its awe and its adoration, are squarely with Denzel Washington’s LAPD cop Alonzo Harris.

Teeth bared, eyes glinting, Washington gets so deeply under the skin of this lethal charmer that he proves he was born to do villainy. For once, the actor’s emotional cool, that reserve that often mutes his performances, especially when he’s playing against white actors, works for him, becoming the character’s defense against the world, a carapace under which hate and greed seethe. Ayer says he started the script before the Rampart CRASH scandal erupted, which may account for why the script focuses on one dirty cop rather than an entire culture of police corruption. That, and bad guys play better onscreen than bad organizations. Panther sleek, clothed in all black, his neck roped in gold that’s an emblem of both his wrongs and his inevitable comeuppance, Alonzo is irresistible. He rules his precinct’s hoods from behind the wheel of a tricked-out, stealthy Monte Carlo, and when he’s not fighting the other bad guys, he’s either ripping or knocking them off. He’s the ultimate gangsta cop, a charismatic, almost messianic figure, equal parts John Shaft, Rafael Perez and Jim Jones, but better-looking, sexy. When Alonzo purrs “that’s my nigger” to the baby-faced white boy next to him, you don’t just see power corrupting powerfully, seductively, you understand that without this character, without this performance, the film itself would be nothing.

Framed against a single long day and night, the story traces Alonzo’s malign tutelage of an 818 recruit named Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke), an innocent whose reward for wanting to work undercover is a nightmarish odyssey through L.A.’s underworld. Alonzo and Jake prowl through downtown, rousting black drug dealers and white drug buyers, staring down legions of muscled, mostly Latino gangbangers and waiting for something to happen. It does, after a fashion. Jake beats a pair of would-be rapists whom Alonzo subsequently brutalizes; Alonzo puts a gun to Jake’s head, smiles a wolfish smile and howls. Money is stolen, then drugs. Men emerge from the shadows, as does a semblance of plot. Through it all, Hawke holds his own against Washington, principally by staying out of the older actor’s showboating way. Not that he has much of a choice: Most of the sharpest invective belongs to Alonzo, who’s such an overwhelming presence that he renders most of the other characters invisible. The exceptions are singer Macy Gray, who’s electric as a trembling, pink-clawed harpy, and New Zealand actor Cliff Curtis, who, as a gang member named Smiley, appears in one of the film’s best scenes (a terrifying standoff in gang territory) and in one of its dumbest. This, then, is the bargain you strike with this film: Brace for the worst, but don’t be disappointed if you don’t actually get it.

TRAINING DAY | Directed by ANTOINE FUQUA Written by DAVID AYER | Produced by JEFFREY SILVER and BOBBY NEWMEYER | Released by Warner Bros. | Citywide

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