Putting too much emphasis on the auteur theory can lead film buffs down some fairly ridiculous paths. Or, rather, since I’d prefer not to get into a big debate about what auteurism means now vs. what it meant back when it was first conceived, let’s just say that it isn’t always a good idea to assume that the director should get most of the credit, or shoulder most of the blame. Not only do great filmmakers frequently whiff—an inconvenient truth that some stubborn folks refuse to concede (see White, Armond on Spielberg, Steven)—but bad filmmakers occasionally manage to stay out of someone else’s way and contribute to first-rate work. And if you’re too fixated on the notion of director-as-wellspring, you may wind up enduring a lot of drivel before you wake up and realize that Hacky McHackerson had little to do with that film’s success.
Case in point: Training Day. Now, few of you may agree with me that this was one of the past decade’s finest major-studio pictures. Its central contrivance—the condensation of what would actually be months, perhaps years worth of creeping institutional corruption into a single traumatic 24-hour period—can be tough to swallow, and there’s no denying that it falls apart in the home stretch, with that bombastic “King Kong’s! Got nothin’! On me!” nonsense. But even the unconvinced must allow that this film, for all its flaws, is still orders of magnitude more supple and gripping than the rest of Antoine Fuqua’s filmography, which includes such brain-dead cine-cadavers as The Replacement Killers, Tears Of The Sun, and (repress your gag reflex) Shooter. Nor do I think that screenwriter David Ayer—whose own directorial debut, Harsh Times, amounts to a slapdash remake—deserves the huzzahs. Take a look at the mesmerizing scene in which rogue LAPD detective Alonzo Harris commits cold-blooded murder, then schemes to reconceive the incident as an act of heroism on the part of his unit’s newest recruit (Ethan Hawke), and you’ll see why I call Training Day “un film de Denzel Washington.”
Washington won his second Oscar for this performance. There was a sense at the time that it was something of a token nod, bestowed as affirmative action; Halle Berry also won that year, for one of the worst nominated performances in recent memory. But even if you prefer to think of it as a career-achievement honor, that’s entirely appropriate, because Washington’s take on Alonzo makes canny, downright subversive use of the image he’d spent two decades carefully constructing. When he sits down on the couch next to Hawke and repeatedly instructs him to shoot Scott Glenn’s character, he does so in a casual, joshing manner that makes it easy to believe that we’re witnessing some sort of elaborate test of the rookie’s ethics. That’s clearly what Hawke believes, which is why he plays along, taking aim and yelling “pow!” But we still aren’t prepared for the face of Steven Biko, Malcolm X, and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter to grab the shotgun (or “the bitch”) and abruptly plug the guy himself.
Of course, Washington wasn’t the first actor to trash his noble persona in a villainous role. Henry Fonda did the same thing more than 30 years earlier in Once Upon A Time In The West, and I’m sure there are even earlier examples of the phenomenon. But I’m not sure any other actor has ever toyed with the audience’s loyalty the way Washington does here. Not only does he steal a cool million from the seizure and murder the cashbox’s former owner, he quickly threatens Hawke’s life when it appears that the rookie isn’t going to support the scenario Washington has concocted. (The grotesque smile that crawls over Washington’s face just before he launches into his fake news report ranks among the most chilling instances of pure malevolence I know.) And yet seconds later, when Hawke turns the tables, Washington oozes sincerity and tough candor as he insists that this was an anomaly, that his unit is a necessary evil, that everything we’ve witnessed is in the service of a greater good. (He sells the idea even harder in the next scene, though it later becomes clear that by that point he’s already arranged to have Hawke killed.)
What makes this scene so effective is that Washington isn’t just working to persuade Hawke, who has a shotgun pointed at his head. He’s simultaneously working to persuade us, appealing to our long-ingrained sense of him as an actor always and forever on the side of the angels. Even as he behaves like a notorious drug kingpin rather than a decorated narcotics officer, he manages to come across as paternalistic (noting Hawke’s discomfort with accepting the money and offering to hold it for him until he feels more comfortable), proud (praising Hawke’s superlative police work as if it weren’t directed at him), and even sorrowful (at the very idea that this “good man” with the “magic eye” should be gunned down on the spot). When Hawke finally hands Washington the shotgun, his decision is totally comprehensible. Like us, he can’t bring himself to believe that this emblem of righteousness could be entirely rotten.
Unfortunately, Fuqua occasionally undermines that productive feeling of ambiguity with the same sledgehammer technique that’s made all his other movies such endurance tests. To be fair, the scene (and indeed the film) as a whole is ably directed, and there’s even one brief moment here that I’d call inspired: the quick exchange of troubled glances between Nick Chinlund and Peter Greene when Hawke refuses the money, with Greene’s face half-obscured by Hawke’s head, out of focus, in the foreground. A nice, subtle touch. Fuqua’s choice to place most of Washington’s face in shadow as he urges Hawke to pull the trigger, however, isn’t especially subtle, though it does look pretty cool. And he nearly ruins this sequence by cutting, at one particularly tense moment, to two of the lamest reaction shots of all time. It’s already heinous enough when Washington browbeats Hawke into smoking weed that turns out to be laced with PCP; we didn’t need Chinlund leering like some cut-rate Satanist and Jaime P. Gomez licking his lips like a pedophile arriving at the playground.
Still, Training Day is Denzel’s show, and in my opinion, his Oscar was richly deserved. I doubt the movie would have worked with anybody else in the role, which isn’t a bad definition for a title as inherently subjective as “Best Actor.” He somehow manages to take a character who’s nonstop dastardly and keep us guessing about his true motives for almost the entire picture, right up to the regrettable moment when he turns into a generic, bellowing Big Bad.* And his work elevates everybody else’s—a Herculean task at which both Bruce Willis (in Tears Of The Sun) and Mark Wahlberg (in Shooter) failed miserably. As Washington bends down into frame after shooting Glenn, instructing him to breathe his last, his sadistic wheedling even makes him look and sound a bit like a film director. He makes the picture breathe.
* Rewatching this scene over and over again while writing this piece, I discovered that he does something else nearly as miraculous. Freeze the frame, if you can, at the moment right after Washington asks Greene “What about you? Are you comfortable?” and Greene replies, “Oh, I’m comfortable,” tossing his pack of $50s back to Washington. As Denzel catches it, freeze. Look at the expression on his face, visible only for a split-second. Is it just me, or does he turn into Eddie Murphy? I’ve been watching him since the mid-’80s and have never seen him look that goofy, though admittedly I have yet to catch up with Carbon Copy.