When a film actor’s career is floundering, he begins looking for ways to re-inject some life into it. Some choose the John Travolta path, taking a role in a groundbreaking and vastly influential film, only to take this newfound appreciation and run it into the ground by making “Battlefield Earth.” Others emulate the Robert DeNiro method of career management, opting for roles that aren’t familiar to their audiences all in the name of proving they still have “range.”
Denzel Washington’s career is not floundering, and few would question his versatility. So why would one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars allow himself to be cast so heavily against type? Why would Hollywood’s most successful actor of color take on a role in which he rocks more ice than Lil’ Wayne on an Antarctic expedition? Why would the man whose smile sets so many women’s hearts a-flutter work with the director of “Bait” and the writer of “The Fast and the Furious?” Because he’s Denzel Washington, and he’s damn good enough to make it all work.
In what is flat out the most engrossing performance of the year, Washington (“Glory”) plays Alonzo Harris, a veteran LAPD narcotics agent who doesn’t mind breaking the rules in order to get what he wants. He’s teamed with Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke, “Hamlet”), a naíve rookie eager to climb his way up the police ranks. In only his first day as a would-be detective, Jake is forced to smoke marijuana dusted with PCP, rough up a wheelchair bound crack dealer (a strangely effective Snoop Dogg) and overlook Alonzo’s use of a Chinese take-out menu as a search warrant.
As the day progresses, Jake’s moral dilemmas grow in number and magnitude ? after being introduced to one of Alonzo’s friends, Jake is promptly ordered to execute him with a sawed-off shotgun. Jake continues to search his heart for both rationalizations of his actions and Alonzo’s disregard for procedure, but comes up empty when he discovers Alonzo’s true intent behind the day’s proceedings.
Director Antoine Fuqua effectively allows Alonzo to straddle the line between good and evil up until the film’s too-neatly-ironic conclusion. However, he does direct with a careful, almost minimalist, approach, letting Washington dictate the pace and tone of the movie.
Hawke complements Washington perfectly, forcing the viewer to go through the same anxiety and gut-wrenching decisions. With the ill-fated (though well-intentioned) “Hamlet” and now “Training Day,” he continues to prove himself as an actor capable of externalizing the most internal of conflicts.
But let’s face it, this is Denzel’s show. If 2001 lacked a surefire Best Actor nominee, it certainly has one now. Throwing himself into a role like only Denzel can, he carefully draws out any and every moral ambiguity, leaving the audience guessing up until the very end. Few entertainers this side of Dr. Dre can wax philosophical while hittin’ switches in an El Camino, and Washington’s performance never falters. Strange as the role may seem for him, it is neither a shameless way to get a quick pay check, nor is it a gratuitous stab at reinventing his career. It’s simply a confirmation that he should keep his schedule clear in late March.