Wednesday, May 31, 2017

What-To-Watch Wednesday - Training Day (2001)

When Denzel Washington won the Best Actor Academy Award for his performance in Training Day, I remember it was considered something of an upset as Russel Crowe had been the critical darling that year for his work in A Beautiful Mind.  Crowe had the more conventional Oscar-bait role, playing real-life mathematician John Nash, and he had racked up a slew of awards for his performance going into the Oscars ceremony that year.  But, it was Washington who took home the Oscar, becoming only the second black actor to do so and currently the only one to have won two (Washington's first Oscar was for his supporting role in 1989's Glory).

I was in complete agreement with the Academy that year as Washington's performance in Training Day is a prime example of an actor, at the height of his creative powers, making the most out of a role.  


Washington plays Detective Alonzo Harris, a Los Angeles police officer.  Harris is a bad cop who patrols his turf like a power-drunk warlord.  In the hands of a lesser actor, Harris would be as over-the-top as a comic book villain.  But, Washington manages to imbue Harris with a world weariness and even a hint of a core morality that he willfully ignores.  In Washington's hands, Harris becomes a complex character that engages the audience and makes us wonder whether or not there is a hope of redemption for him.


But, Harris is the villain of the piece, make no mistake about it.  And, it is really something to see Washington tear into those moments where Harris is at his most evil.  The way he coldly wields a sawed-off shotgun or the glint in his eyes as he reveals his master plan to the rookie, Jake (played by Ethan Hawke), who he has been trying to corrupt throughout the whole film.  Washington makes Harris a sinister presence while giving him all the allure and charisma you might find in a vampire movie.


And, that might be the most apropos comparison to make about this character.  Harris is a vampire in the metaphorical sense; he feeds off the fear and pain of others while slyly manipulating the events around him.  Washington seems to understand this and makes his performance grandiose and theatrical in just the right modulation so that a line like "King Kong ain't got shit on me" comes across as a genuine threat rather than the ridiculous thing it is to say.


I don't mean to imply that there isn't also subtlety in Washington's portrayal.  When you watch the film, listen for the very deliberate verbal switching that Washington uses when talking with different characters. With Jake, he is the learned, articulate veteran cop imparting his knowledge and experience to a newbie.  With a drug dealer, his language becomes street vernacular, speaking in a quick shorthand vocabulary to make his meaning clear.  And, with his crew of corrupt cops, he sounds like a military leader, issuing orders like a general on the battlefield.


I know I have spent this whole review talking about Washington's performance, but it is truly the centerpiece of a very effective and gritty crime drama.  And, it is also a great achievement in screen acting.


Note: I missed doing a review last week as my time got away with all the end-of-the-school-year craziness.  Such is the life of a high school teacher!

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