Denzel Washington has been one of our greatest movie stars for so long that it can be difficult to remember any other time. For much of his early career, he was known for largely playing upstanding, moral characters in movies like A Soldier’s Story, Cry Freedom, and Glory, in addition to being critically acclaimed for stage performances of Shakespeare. Even when he began to extend himself into more ambiguous roles, like a homophobic, ambulance-chasing, but ultimately empathetic lawyer in Philadelphia and the conflicted ex-con father of He Got Game, there was a fundamental core of decency to all of Denzel Washington’s roles. That all changed with his Academy Award-winning performance in the 2001 film Training Day, which is currently in the top ten most streamed movies on HBO Max.
Training Day stars Denzel Washington as Detective Alonzo Harris, a Los Angeles Police Department narcotics detective tasked with evaluating Officer Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke in one of his periodic blockbuster roles) for a promotion. The movie is almost entirely built on the interactions between Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke, with the latter radiating some kind of cautious idealism as an officer of the law and the former serving as a manifestation of corruption. Through the course of the day, the two are almost never separated, sharing the majority of scenes in the movie. And while the movie can be easily described as “Denzel Washington as a charismatic corrupt cop attempts to set up naive rookie Ethan Hawke to take a fall,” it is actually a surprisingly nuanced film.
For one thing, the casting of Denzel Washington as Alonzo is nothing short of a stroke of genius. There have been few performers of any kind in cinematic history with the kind of monumental charisma that he exudes, and the dial is set to maximum for the entirety of the film. Denzel Washington’s Alonzo is an intentionally larger-than-life character. He shoots with two guns at once, like a John Woo hitman. He seems to be in complete control of any and all situations, even when he has guns literally pointed at them or facing down a hostile mob in the notorious L.A. Imperial Courts housing project.
But the movie is clear that Denel Washington is not some kind of superman; his persona as a crafty, loud-mouthed street king is as much of a calculated act as it seems to be him. By the end of the movie, it is clear that this is a man who has internalized and weaponized every survival technique he has learned as a police detective to the point of no longer having a true identity.
It is also interesting that Training Day leaves it ambiguous whether Denzel Washington is an utterly corrupt cop or one that has made hard decisions in the face of relentless violence and crime too many times or something in between. While Ethan Hawke is restrained and ultimately empowered by his adherence to the law, Denzel Washington has accepted that in order to catch criminals, he must use their methods. Or is he a criminal that has learned he can use the law in order to serve his own ends? It remains unclear. Sure, Denzel Washington kills a man in cold blood and steals from him. But that man (Scott Glenn in a few tense scenes) also is just as bad as him, if not worse. If he is not lying, Denzel Washington has enormously more arrests and convictions than the ostensibly more lawful Ethan Hawke. But does that mean he is catching more criminals, or that he is using the law as a weapon against his enemies and competitors?
Training Day was directed by Antoine Fuqua and written by David Ayer. While the director of a film is usually considered the main creative force, it is clear this particular Denzel Washington film is the work of its writer. Before he was known for the failures of Suicide Squad and Bright, Ayer was known for his work in gritty, street-oriented films usually set in Los Angeles. Training Day may be the best of them, both inspired by and reflecting the well-known LAPD corruption scandals of the 1990s. But more than anything, it served as a turning point for Denzel Washington, in which he could finally turn loose and play someone who is utterly rotten to the core. But… is he?