Our contenders here are hardened Los Angeles cops who come to the ring after years of battling gang-bangers, crooked politicians and their own evil instincts. Both these films were inspired by the LAPD’s troubled Rampart division which, during the late 1990s pretty much set the bar for police misconduct, and also inspired the classic cable hit, The Shield. So naturally, the squads in this fight are street-tough, hard-cases who should be difficult to knock down for a win. Always eager for a scuffle, they’re hyperventilating in their corners, ready for a blast of Smackdown violence. So let’s throw them at each other right away. Rrriiiiiiing!
Rampart is set in the late 1990s — hardly the ideal time to be an L.A. cop. The decade was bookmarked by the Rodney King beating scandal and the wide-ranging corruption of an anti-gang unit headquartered at the LAPD station of the title. Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) is a Rampart cop and a longtime veteran of the force who, like his gang-unit brothers in blue, occasionally goes too far in his pursuit of justice. We see him batter a suspect to extract information, and it’s rumored that some years previously he killed a man suspected of a sex crime.
One day, our man’s misconduct is caught on tape when he’s filmed pummeling a driver who’s smashed a car into Dave’s cruiser. Police brass and the city’s district attorney (Steve Buscemi) attempt to eject him from the force, but he’s wily and sharp-tongued enough to talk his way out of trouble. Meanwhile, life at home is anything but idyllic; he lives with not one but two ex-wives (who also happen to be sisters) and two daughters, the older of whom can’t stand the sight of him.
Nearly as soon as he slips out of one scandal, he insists on creating another. He’s tipped off to an illegal card game and sets about robbing it. Not surprisingly, this results in shots fired and another civilian lying dead, thanks to Dave. Again, he somehow manages to keep his job, but at the cost of rapidly increasing damage to his health, sanity and relationships with colleagues and family.
Training Day accurately describes the time span of the movie, an eventful set of hours in which Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) is to be evaluated for promotion to an elite unit (hopefully not the anti-gang guys at Rampart). Unluckily for Jake, his evaluator is detective Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington), a veteran undercover cop who would probably win big in a Worst Police Mentor of All Time contest. The deeply corrupt and volatile Harris takes his young colleague on a wild ride in his vintage Monte Carlo, a journey which includes forced consumption of PCP-loaded marijuana, a shakedown or two, and last but far from least, the murder and robbery of a drug dealer.
After nearly being killed when Alonzo abandons him in a house full of homicidal gang-bangers, Jake hunts down his evil, would-be mentor and attempts to tip the scales of justice against him. Never one to let the minor inconvenience of being a frothing psychopath get in the way of success, Alonzo is a crafty, highly intelligent guy used to squeezing out of tight situations. Will the green and untested rookie be able to bring down such a man?
Training Day starts off well enough, with a clear objective for Jake and the “uh-oh, this guy’s trouble” introduction of Alonzo. We get the stirrings of a little mystery, as we sense that the detective is up to something rotten, although we don’t quite know what and why. The film can’t really sustain this initial momentum, however, and it falls deeper into implausibility as it goes on. Alonzo is too over-the-top corrupt, and despite the film’s success in believably depicting L.A. and its criminal element, it’s hard to buy that such a character would get away with his crimes for so long.
Additionally, among other implausible developments, Jake’s narrow escape from the gang-banger house relies on a lucky coincidence that feels like a Hollywood contrivance rather than a real-world turn of events. Washington is a fine actor and he anchors the movie; his Alonzo is riveting to watch, and the character’s anger and menace radiate from the screen. The problem is, screenwriter David Ayer and director Antoine Fuqua depend too much on him to carry the film. His shtick gets tiresome by the end, and it can’t quite cover the holes in the script, the lack of fresh, inventive story developments, and the unnecessarily long running-time of this fairly straightforward tale.
Still, it’s loads more entertaining than Rampart. The new film is packed with talent – it’s directed by Oren Moverman, who co-wrote it with the reigning king of L.A. noir novels, James Ellroy. Moverman also teamed with Woody Harrelson in The Messenger, Moverman’s directing debut, which earned an Oscar nomination for Harrelson and another one for the original screenplay Moverman co-wrote. It’s too bad they couldn’t have captured some of that magic here, instead delivering a dull, unclear story based on an uninteresting character with little depth. All of the actors try valiantly, but this is a lifeless effort made worse by the overused fake documentary technique full of shaky hand-held cinematography and tight close-ups. Essentially, it’s an attempt at an arty character study, but again, Dave isn’t interesting enough to follow, and the fake-doc approach has been done many times before, and many times better. And for an offering that tries very hard to be realistic, it suffers from a severe lack of clarity and more plausibility issues than its rival.
It’s also guilty of wasting its fine supporting cast. For example, Buscemi and Sigourney Weaver show up, to little effect, as officials trying to stop Dave… but this story thread is (unsatisfyingly) dropped early on and so are those characters. Ben Foster (who also co-produced) has a few long, showy scenes as a handicapped street person, however his character does basically nothing to advance the story. He’s an apt metaphor for the movie as a whole.
Although it seemed that we’d witness a pummeling brawl between two veteran heavyweights, this Smackdown actually turned out to be a lopsided fight with the loser going down hard and soon. Although not a masterpiece, Training Day is entertaining and has a decent story, unlike the colorless and hard to watch Rampart. Denzel Washington obviously had a fun time playing the bad guy, and it shows; his performance, while ultimately too burdensome in the end, keeps us nailed to the action on-screen. The same can’t be said for the players in Moverman’s film, as they’re given generally flat characters and a leaden, implausible story.
This Battle of the Blue, then, wasn’t much of a battle at all. Taking a pounding and hitting the canvas early was Rampart. Barely breaking a sweat and decorated with a new medal on its uniform is our winner, Training Day.