By STEVEN TRAVERS
Millions have tuned in to Dr. Michael Savage over the decades. His metier of course is conservative politics but unlike most other Right-of-center radio hosts, the good doctor is incredibly varied. His fans enjoy his take on religion, on the culture, on adult men wearing their hats backward, and their pants half-way down their buttocks.
But for me I have greatly enjoyed his reviews of movies and television shows. His taste is very similar to mine. He raved about The Sopranos and accurately demonstrated that “art imitates life” while following Homeland, a show I reviewed for this site to kudos from Dr. Savage. He has even interviewed the filmmakers, such as the screenwriters of Munich and maybe The Good Shepherd if my memory serves me.
I studied at the USC film school and was a working – albeit not terribly successful – screenwriter in Hollywood from 1994-2001. Looking back, I am glad my “ship never came in.” I well might be laboring among the immoralists and unpatriotic of the film industry today had a famed producer named Edgar Scherick, who loved me and my work and was ready to hire me for a major project starring James Woods, not died about two decades ago. I shifted to books and am better off for it, although maybe not as wealthy. Oh well, I am blessed for what I have and not bitter about what I do not have.
Anyway, todays’s piece is about a 2001 film called Training Day. I recall with clarity Dr. Savage raving over this movie, and using the word “astonishing” to describe the quality of the acting, namely three Mexican gangbangers “hired” to assassinate Ethan Hawk’s character, Jake Hoyt. At one point Samuel L. Jackson was up for the lead and Matt Damon as the young white officer. It is hard to imagine anybody could have pulled it off better than the actors who actually played the roles.. “Astonishing,” however, describes every single actor in this incredible film directed by the underrated Antoine Fuqua.
The screenplay had already been written when some major scandals hit the L.A.P.D. in the mid- to late 1990s, mostly in the notorious Rampart section of mid-town Los Angeles where many of Joseph Wambaugh’s novels were set. Those scandals included The Riders and the C.R.A.S.H. unit. Exposition of these events pushed the making of Training Day to capitalize on real life. Star Denzel Washington grew a beard to more closely resemble Rafael Perez, one of the lead actors in the cop scandals. Along with his character’s first name, Alonzo, this gave him a slightly Latino persona like Perez, which Washington pulled off perfectly.
Somehow Fuqua was able to arrange scenes to be filmed in some of the grittiest and most notorious gang neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Not only that, many of the gang extras were actual gangbangers. Somehow they welcomed the film crews in and were friendly with them. They certainly looked authentic chasing the cops shirtless out of their neighborhood with glocks at the ready.
The movie does not glorify police work but it does accurately portray human weakness and corruption, which has been with us since Eve bit the apple. The film begins with Officer Hoyt on his first day as a plainclothes detective assigned to an “elite unit” run by Alonzo Harris. Harris steals some PCP from some college kids in the ‘hood to score drugs, then forces Hoyt to smoke some of it, claiming that an undercover cop must not only know but even come to “love” the narcotics he is trying to get off the street. Hoyt protests but smokes it anyway, only to find out afterwards it was “angel dust.” Now he is obligated to do as Alonzo commands because future drug testing will show he has illegal substances in his system, presumably something Alonzo can fix.
Then Alonzo steals $40,000 using a fake “search warrant” from a drug dealer’s house, earning shots fired at their car from the pissed gangbangers as they drive away. From there the action swings to a swanky part of town where the “Three Wise Men” are lunching at a fancy restaurant. These include Harris Yulin and Tom Berenger.
The scene apparently almost was cut out of the film, but the filmmakers insisted it be kept in because it demonstrated that police corruption is not relegated to street cops who happen to be black or Latino. The “Three Wise Men” are all white, veteran cops, and while the details of their discussion with Alonzo are not spelled out, the audience comes to understand that Alonzo operates either under their supervision or as an equal with them; that they are okay with his crossing into illegal activity; that big money is involved; and that Alonzo has messed with the Russian mob, who are a threat over and above what the “Three Wise Men” are capable of containing. Alonzo just smiles and assures them it is all handled, at which point one of them makes reference to past cop scandals, probably the C.R.A.S.H. operation which ended up in the newspapers.
Next the car passes a vacant lot and Jake notices a couple of homeless bums trying to rape a young Mexican in a Catholic schoolgirl’s uniform. He jumps in against Alonzo’s advice, beats them up, and rescues the girl, who runs away. Jake keeps her wallet.
Then they visit Alonzo’s old partner in crime Roger, played to perfection by Scott Glenn. The details are not spelled out but it is obvious he, like Alonzo, is as corrupt as the day is long, but they play it with smiles and jive-jargon. Jake observes this ruefully, thinking perhaps, “Is this really how it is?”
Then Alonzo’s unit appears, which includes Dr. Dre as Detective Paul. These guys are corrupt beyond any attempt at papering it over, which is intentional. This is the moment of truth for Jake, the young, impressionable former high school football star with a young wife and baby at home. A cop can get rich on the force if he plays his cards the right way.
Some explanation is given to Roger, which is not very revelatory, and to his disdain (but apparent acquiescence) the group digs up $4 million hidden under his floor. The corrupt unit members all accept their cuts, making no effort to hide their corruption, but Jake wants no part of this.
In this regard Training Day takes a page from Serpico, in which the honest cop makes the dishonest feel uncomfortable. The tension is thick and Jake’s life is on the life, but Washington’s acting is superb as he demonstrates his charisma and charm in talking down the angry unit, all the while saying Jake is a good man who is just like he was, and he will handle his money until he comes around.
There is an argument and violence. The unit sets up a fake shooting, resulting in Roger’s death, pinning it on Jake in such a way that if he does not go along he will be fed to the wolves. Jake knocks Dr. Dre out with a punch and it is on. Alonzo reminds Jake he is his superior and can control the blood test Jake will otherwise fail if he does not comply.
Jake and Alonzo leave and Jake is disconsolate, asking if this is truly the way it is? Alonzo tries to comfort him. All cops go through it, he says. Then they drive to the home of a Sureno gang family led by Smiley, played by Cliff Curtis.
Alonzo leaves Jake with three menacing drug dealers while he goes somewhere to take care of some “business.” Jake is the cop and has a gun, but he is in unfriendly territory, nervous as hell. The three drug dealers play cards and discuss Alonzo, who they call a “ruthless vato,” which is why they admire him. They pretend to like Jake, although they throw in some disrespectful remarks, and the tension builds. Their performances are Brando-esque or perhaps more likely Scorsese-esque, since he specializes in building tension within a scene. What is this all about? One of them asks if Jake has ever had his “s—t pushed in,” a reference to jailhouse anal sex. It seems this is some kind of badge of honor in the underworld.
Finally Jake is asked to show them his gun, which he stupidly does, and then they assault him, dragging him into the bathtub to drown him. Since Jake failed to go along with the program in the murder of Roger, he has failed his test on his training day, and must be eliminated. This is Alonzo’s “hit squad.”
But before drowning Jake, Smiley is shown his wallet, which contains a photo of his niece, who happens to be the girl Jake saved from rape earlier. Jake explains what happens and Smiley lets him go, saying it’s not personal, it is “just business.”
From there Jake makes his way to a notorious gang project he visited earlier with Alonzo, who keeps a beautiful Colombian mistress played by Eva Mendes, the mother of his young son. When Jake arrives the gangbangers let him in; they have been putting up with Alonzo’s act for far too along. He has been extorting them like a mob boss and has worn out his welcome.
Jake confronts Alonzo in front of the black gangbangers. Alonzo shouts out an open offer to any one of them to smoke Jake for big money, but they turn their backs on him. Then Denzel puts on one of the great over-the-top performances in movie history, screaming the N-word, telling everybody he can “put cases on every one a you . . .” and they will all be “playing basketball in Pelican Bay,” because he is “King-Kong,” he is “the PO-lice,” but he no longer has the magic.
Jake takes the money Alonzo needed to pay off the Russian mobsters later that evening, and leaves. Then we see Alonzo driving on an L.A. street when the Russians corner his car and kill him. Jake returns to his wife and kid, never the same again.
Both Washington and Hawke have had long, glorious careers, but if either has ever surpassed their performances in Training Day, I am unaware of it. Cliff Curtis as Smiley as well as the other Mexican gangbangerss played by Raymond Cruz and Noel Gugliemi were Oscar-worthy even in small roles. So was Glenn as Roger and Dr. Dre as Paul.
Overall, this remains a true classic as long as films are made.
Steven Travers is a former Hollywood screenwriter who has authored over 30 books including the brand new Best Sports Writing Ever and Coppola’s Monster Film: The Making of Apocalypse Now (2016). One Night, Two Teams: Alabama vs. USC and the Game That Changed a Nation (2007) is currently under film development. He is a USC graduate and attorney with a Ph.D who taught at USC and attended the UCLA Writers’ Program. He played professional baseball, served in the Army JAG corps in D.C., was in investment banking on Wall Street, worked in politics, lived in Europe, and was a sports agent before finding his calling as a writer. He has written for the San Francisco Examiner, L.A. Times, StreetZebra, Gentry magazine, Newsmax and MichaelSavage.com. He lives in California and has one daughter, Elizabeth. He can be reached at USCSTEVE1@aol.com or on Twitter @STWRITES.