Archive for October 5, 2001

Training Day

October 5, 2001

The tagline of Training Day is “The only thing more dangerous than the line being crossed is the cop who will cross it.” To this we might add: The only thing more annoying than a dark, cynical pose being affected is the Hollywood thriller that will shy away from it at the end. Training Day spends much of its running time telling us, in wised-up, street-smart tones, that you have to become a wolf to catch a wolf; whatever disreputable charge it carries derives from this down-and-dirty outlook, so when the movie backtracks and says a wolf who catches other wolves is still a wolf, it ends up not meaning much. Either go all the way, or don’t go there.

Veteran L.A. narc Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington) is the author of the wolf metaphor, among many others. Alonzo sees himself as a hard-bitten combat veteran who long ago lost any ideals or illusions about human nature. Rookie cop Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) is assigned to train under Alonzo’s supervision, ostensibly to prove he has the right stuff to serve in Alonzo’s unit. Like all fresh-faced rookies, Jake has been given a warm and beautiful wife and baby daughter, as if we wouldn’t care about the fate of a single, childless cop.

Jake rides around the hellholes of L.A. with Alonzo, who relishes giving the new white boy a guided tour of places white boys aren’t welcome. For a while, David Ayers’ script toys with the notion that Alonzo is the kind of shady-ethics cop that’s needed to get the job done; and if this were a more serious movie, we might be given to think about how the brutal demands of the job might turn some cops into monsters battling with monsters (while other officers retain their essential decency). The movie could’ve been about what kind of person becomes a bad cop and what kind stays clean, or at least settles for doing no harm.

But this isn’t a serious movie, despite Denzel Washington in full eruption and giving his calloused lines more weight and authority than they deserve. Denzel Washington is this movie — it’s his anti-star vehicle, his chance to stretch his legs in a compelling rare unsympathetic turn. To defuse charges of racism, the movie carefully includes its share of corrupt white officers, lurking in shadows in a restaurant and casually talking about executing a criminal who hoodwinked the court system (the scene could’ve been lifted whole and breathing from The Star Chamber, in which a group of frustrated judges banded together for vengeance). But essentially Training Day is about a noble white man against a corrupt black man.

The movie plays at realism; it plays at a lot of things. But eventually Hollywood takes over — the last act is particularly shameful in this regard, and poor Ethan Hawke (who tries hard, but is miscast) takes so much punishment that you begin to wonder if his character should headline the sequel to Unbreakable. (He bleeds a lot, but he suffers about ten separate mishaps that should have put him in the hospital.) Director Antoine Fuqua, who previously distinguished himself by making a bad Chow Yun-Fat thriller (The Replacement Killers), opts for a brand of rock-video flash slightly different from that film; this time, what he’s selling is the dark and dangerous energy of the street, but he’s still in the selling business.

Watching Training Day, I kept remembering a better thriller about a weary black cop, his eager white partner, and their contrasting ideologies — Seven, whose ending was about as bleak as you can imagine, but which did not send me off vaguely depressed and feeling manipulated. Perhaps it’s because in that film, the war of ideas meant something, and so did the price paid for it. Here, what you get is a two-hour wallow that invites you to accept it as the real world, only to turn on a dime into the fake Hollywood world.

Serendipity

October 5, 2001

For those who were yearning for another keep-’em-apart-till-the-last-minute romantic comedy on the order of Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, the once-daring indie-cinema vanguard Miramax brings Serendipity, the goofiest movie Nora Ephron never wrote. This is another one, folks — one of those gentle fables in which everyone on the planet knows the leading man and leading lady were meant to be together, except of course for themselves and the people unfortunate enough to be engaged to them. The end justifies the means: It doesn’t matter who else gets hurt as long as the name-above-the-title stars are happy as the end credits roll.

The couple in question are John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale, two smart and capable actors (let’s overlook America’s Sweethearts and Pearl Harbor) trapped inside a Rube Goldberg contraption of a screenplay (by Marc Klein). Seven years ago in New York (a magical New York in which the Twin Towers have been digitally removed so as not to distract 2001’s audiences, though the first section unfolds in 1994), Jonathan Trager (Cusack) and Sara Thomas (Beckinsale) meet cute over a pair of gloves at a trendy store. They go ice skating and are mutually smitten, yet Sara decides that if they were really meant for each other, they will have to meet again by chance. If everyone thought like Sara, the world population would plummet.

The years pass, and Jonathan and Sara have moved on to new lives and new loves — Jonathan is about to get married to Halley (Bridget Moynihan), and Sara lives in San Francisco with her pompous lute-playing fiancĂ© Lars (John Corbett). Lars is made a self-absorbed jerk, and Halley is made a near-total zero, all the better for us to accept that Jonathan and Sara could do better and could have done better if Sara hadn’t been such a fate-obsessed ditz all those years ago.

Movies like this frustrate me, and not only because so much of the structure depends on the lovers just missing each other, misunderstanding what they see or hear, or generally acting stupid for 90 minutes until, bowing to the demands of this genre, they finally fall into each other’s arms. No, the frustration comes from these movies’ almost callous disregard for the people that the main lovers toss aside in their quest for one another. What if Lars were a good man as well as a talented musician, and what if Halley had even a single scrap of personality? What if our lovers were fated to be with them? Then Jonathan and Sara could meet again, decide that love isn’t always as neat as love in the movies, and behave like adults.

We should be thankful, I suppose, that Serendipity offers us some diversion in the way of a colorful supporting cast: Jeremy Piven and Molly Shannon as Jonathan’s and Sara’s respective best friends; the scene-stealing Eugene Levy as a rigid salesman. But except for some moments between real-life friends Cusack and Piven (who aren’t allowed a tenth of the funky rapport they had in Grosse Pointe Blank) and some bits between Cusack and Levy that feel improvised, the talented cast is weighed down by the plot’s idiot mechanics. At one point, poor Molly Shannon is beaned by a golf ball and whacked with a golf club, for no purpose other than a cheap laugh; we next expect to see her in the hospital, but no, she’s chatting over coffee with Sara without so much as a bandage on her head.

The stupidity piles up at the climax, which shovels on the coincidences (a five-dollar bill with his name and number on it! a copy of Love in the Time of Cholera with her name and number in it!) and, again, forgets all about poor Hally jilted at the altar — there’s not so much as a single line of dialogue in which Jonathan has to deal with the pain he must’ve caused. At the end, the lovers meet at that same skating rink, with the same fake-looking snow falling on them, and when I was supposed to be happy about the reunion, I found myself instead looking at Jonathan and thinking, You selfish bastard — what’s going to happen if you meet another sexy British woman by chance in the city; are you going to ditch Sara, too?