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Review: 'Training Day' a course worth taking

By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer

(CNN) -- The mean streets of Los Angeles have never looked meaner than in the new film "Training Day," starring Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke.

In this get-down-and-dirty story, Washington plays veteran L.A.P.D. Det. Sgt. Alonzo Harris. For thirteen years this highly-decorated cop has been on the front lines in the war against narcotics. He's pledged to protect and serve the citizens of Los Angeles, but his optimism about police work has long since been chipped away by the reality of life on the streets. He and the tight-knit group of officers that report to him have crossed the line between legality and corruption. They find themselves breaking the laws they're supposed to enforce.

Thrown into this highly volatile mix is an idealistic rookie cop, Jake Hoyt, played by Hawke. He's being given one day -- and only one day -- of training with the charismatic Harris to see if he can cut it as a narc. The film takes place during that 24 hour period while Hoyt is drawn deeper and deeper into the complex underworld of cops and killers -- a world where black-and-white has turned to grey.

Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke star in the new U.S. release, 'Training Day' (October 2)

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Denzel turns nasty in 'Training Day'  

Everything Hoyt has learned about being a cop must be thrown out of the window if he wants to cut it with the big boys. Alonzo's ethics and his logic are in complete opposition to the "book" which most cops must follow. It's been said that "it takes a thief to catch a thief," and that sentiment is stretched to the max by Alonzo and his roving band of renegade cops.

Split second decisions can mean life or death. Hoyt is sent into a tailspin by Alonzo's delusions and his questionable edicts of justice. Before the day is done, the young cop is asked to take drugs, accept drug money as a payoff, invent evidence, and even commit murder. Before he knows it, he's in so deep that there seems to be no way out. As Alonzo tells him "There is no justice, no law. It all boils down to what you can and cannot prove." Regardless of the truth, all the proof is set up to frame Hoyt unless he goes along with the program.

Hawke is totally believable as a doe-eyed rookie going toe-to-toe with a legend. Of course, that's exactly what he's doing by co-starring with Washington. This is Hawke's first time out playing a cop, and it's the first time Denzel has portrayed a villain with no redeeming features. Both do themselves proud.

A story about undercover cops who go bad is hardly new to Hollywood. But rarely is the subject handled as well as it is in "Training Day." Conventional wisdom dictates that writers should write about things they know, and that's exactly what 29-year-old screenwriter David Ayer did with "Training Day." Ayer grew up in South Central L.A., and he and his friends knew cops who bent and mutilated the rules just like Washington's character. However, when he originally wrote the film in 1995 no one in Hollywood would touch it because cops were treated in such a negative way. Then came the Rampart Police Division scandal in Los Angeles involving crooked cops on the take and suddenly the young scribe had a hot property.

Stories about undercover officers have always provided good drama. These men and women must make the people they're dealing with -- from petty thieves, to murderers drug dealers -- believe in them. Sometimes they become the very evil they're chasing. Ayer's action-packed thriller explores that sad fact in a fresh, factual way that is as entertaining, as it is thought provoking.

The movie asks several questions such as: Does law-abiding law enforcement come at the expense of justice and public safety? Are safe streets worth the cost of immorality practiced by the men and women who are supposed to hold up the law? Does the legal system get in the way of catching -- and keeping -- hardened criminals?

There are no easy answers to these questions, and "Training Day" wisely doesn't try to provide them.

Director Antoine Fuqua and cinematographer Mauro Fiore both have an excellent eye for camera angles and film texture, while the story itself is beautifully paced as it storms toward it's conclusion.

As usual Washington is astounding. He grabs the screen like a vise and never lets go. Hawke gives his best performance to date. Look for Tom Berenger in a small role. Scott Glenn is featured in two key scenes. Rapper Snoop Dogg portrays a street punk, and singer Macy Gray makes her screen debut playing a drug dealer's wife.

"Training Day" is a course worth taking as it opens nationwide on Friday, October 5. It's rated R.


• Training Day

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