Advance apologies for the sour soapboxing, but... isn't Ethan Hawke one of Hollywood's all-time grates? More sap than slacker, more boo-hoo than boho, all mumbling navel-gazing and vast angst, to witness Hawke's inert everyslacker persona in action is a truly trying thing. This, don't forget, is a man who interpreted Hamlet as a pouting moron with a heart of muesli. Flogging himself as a Generation X figurehead, all the tortured offbeat artist stuff might look earnest to him, but to everybody else it's all blank, desperately sixth-form posturing. Ethan Hawke is 31.
Yet, despite an Oscar campaign hyping Denzel Washington's snarling bad-ass cop, Training Day is, in fact, Hawke's No More Mr Nice Guy movie. The one that says, "You might think I'm a feeble, sincere, internally cosmic kind of guy, but if you really, really pushed me, I could kick your face into next week."
A hellish life-in-a-day cop flick, Training Day's a simple, brutal pleasure that doesn't fumble about with fiddly stuff like exposition. Fifteen minutes in, and Hawke's rookie officer has already endured a barrage of insults, had a gun pointed to his head and been cajoled into taking drugs. That his narcotics cop mentor, Denzel Washington, is to blame for all of the above is just a taste of baddy-buddy tensions to come.
The question, of course, is whether Washington's actions are a harsh lesson in street survival ethics or just sadistic bullying of a corruptible pupil. It certainly serves as an extremely effective dramatic timebomb. From then on in, it's just a matter of waiting to see how and when Hawke will crack under Washington's depraved patrol code. Let's call it survival of the phattest.
It's only after the first act that things get silly. After several tense ghetto scrapes (this is LA as homeboy apocalypse), the sudden introduction of a deal-gone-bad plot is confusing and distracting. And it's only in the third act that things get ridiculous. Sharp and punchy at first, what could have been an edgy thriller descends into genre bilge. Audiences' eyes will roll but at least Antoine Fuqua's direction remains cocksure and muscular.
Not so much showing his partner the ropes as boxing him onto them, and rapping out wisdom like a malevolent urban buddha ("Control your smiles and cries, `cos that's all you got"), Washington struts with a vulgar confidence. Yes, he's brilliant in a best-lines kind of way ("They build jails because of me!"), but it's an understated Hawke who takes the journey and supplies the guts. So much so that by the end of the movie, with socket-sunk eyes, pressed brow and pebbled baritone, the transition is complete: Hawke has mutated into Nick Nolte. From grizzler to grizzled - could be the start of a promising new career...
Beneath the funky veneer and acidic streetslang, Training Day is a gripping but retrograde dirty cop thriller let down by a routine climax. Terrific acting, though.