On March 18, 1997, Frank Lyga, who worked as an undercover detective for the L.A.P.D., was driving his vehicle when he noticed another vehicle pulling up next to his. The driver deciding to flash gang signs at him. As Lyga drove off, he noticed the other vehicle continuing to follow him, and that the driver was carrying a pistol that he seemingly intended to use on him. This then resulted in Lyga taking out his own pistol and firing at the driver after hearing him verbally threaten to shoot him. The driver was dead, and Lyga immediately contacted a radio dispatcher to report what had just happened. Two hours later, Lyga’s boss informed him that the driver he had just shot and killed was named Kevin Gaines. Kevin Gaines was an officer with the L.A.P.D.
It was the start of many controversies and revelations about the L.A.P.D.’s Rampart C.R.A.S.H. anti-gang unit, its detectives, and its operating procedures that kept them on the front page of many newspapers. Gaines, an officer with Rampart C.R.A.S.H., was revealed to have been connected to the popular record label, Death Row Records, and its owner, Marion “Suge” Knight (which was also known to be affiliated with the street gang known as the Bloods) as one of many cops who acted as security guards on their behalf when not on duty. Later that same year, another L.A.P.D. detective named David Mack was implicated in a bank robbery that resulted in $722,000 of stolen funds with the help of his girlfriend, who worked as a branch manager at that very same bank. February 1998 saw 18th Street Gang member Ismael Jimenez taken into custody by Rampart C.R.A.S.H. officer Brian Hewitt and beaten so brutally that he vomited blood. The month after that, eight pounds of cocaine went missing from the evidence room, and it was suspected that the person who removed it was C.R.A.S.H. officer Rafael Peréz.
After an entire task force was created to investigate what was going on with this particular unit, Peréz ended up cutting a deal for immunity and a reduced jail sentence. He went on to provide testimony that resulted in more than 70 officers being implicated in wrongdoing, but only 13 of those officers received either suspensions or forced resignations with no jail time. There were thousands of convictions that were possibly tainted as a result of the Rampart C.R.A.S.H. unit, and at least 150 lawsuits were filed against the city as news of this corruption came to light.
Training Day, which opened in theaters on October 5, 2001, was conceived and written by David Ayer long before all of this became public knowledge. But it becomes very clear while watching it that the film was strongly influenced by what was known and published about the Rampart scandal. Even Antoine Fuqua, the film’s director, admitted that it affected how the film was completed.
Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) has been an officer for the LAPD for 19 months, and he has just scored the career opportunity of a lifetime. He’s been invited to ride along with highly decorated detective Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington) for one full day, and show whether he has what it takes to become a member of Alonzo’s unit in the Narcotics division. Jake, who wants to earn a promotion to detective that would earn him a bigger paycheck to support his wife and his newborn daughter, is eager to impress. Alonzo is more than willing to throw Jake into the deep end of the pool to see what he’s truly made of and whether he’s going to sink or swim. As the day progresses, Jake finds his own preconceptions about police work being challenged at every turn by Alonzo, and by many other people that he encounters during his training day. But Jake soon realizes that Alonzo is far more ruthless and manipulative than he ever suspected. His refusal to cross the line to become the kind of cop that Alonzo is and wants him to be will force Jake to realize just how true this is.
Most of us who have watched action films and police procedurals are used to seeing cops bend the rules in order to take down the bad guys and bring them to justice, all in the name of the greater good. “Dirty” Harry Callahan, Andy Sipowicz, Axel Foley, John McClane, Martin Riggs & Roger Murtaugh, and so on. As Alonzo Harris, Denzel Washington uses his charm, his smile, his good looks, and his reputation for playing upstanding, good-hearted characters who do the right thing to disarm all of us in the audience and trust him to be another one of those cops who will do whatever it takes to get the job done and make us cheer for him while doing so.
Alonzo Harris is not that kind of cop. When it comes to bending and breaking the rules, it’s not for the greater good or to help those who truly need it, it’s to secure his reign as the alpha dog who runs his yard however he sees fit. From his outfit to his car (which Jake accurately points out as not being from the motor pool), to his choice of weaponry (two pistols for dual-wielding, as if he’s a gunslinger in the Wild West), to his entire demeanor (his favorite sayings when his prey gets caught in the web he has just finished spinning: “You wanna go to jail, or you wanna go home?” and “It’s not what you know, it’s what you can prove”), Alonzo’s badge is nothing more than a means and an excuse to do whatever he wants to whoever he wants, especially when he’s scrambling and trying to beat the clock in order to avoid enduring the wrath of the Russian mob.
Like Henry Fonda in Once Upon A Time In The West and Morgan Freeman in Street Smart, it was shocking to see an actor known for playing a good guy and a role model convey such poisonous charm and utter malevolence as Denzel was willing and able to do with this character, who clearly sees himself as a wolf among sheep and expects to be treated as such because he knows exactly what must be done to protect the sheep and keep them safe from harm. Those of us watching him in Training Day couldn’t help but ask, “Oh, he’s not really this bad and this evil, is he?” Denzel as Alonzo would come back at us in every scene with “Yes, I am!”
Ethan Hawke’s performance as Jake Hoyt is not the showstopper that Denzel’s performance is (nor was it ever really expected to be), but he does a great job in holding his own opposite Denzel and not getting completely blown offscreen whenever they share a scene together. Jake may still be new to being a police officer on the streets of Los Angeles, but he’s not naive, nor is he a pushover. It’s clear that he’s capable of doing his job and not taking sh-t from those who threaten him, whether it’s a cop or a civilian. But his ambition and his desire to climb the ladder is what motivates him to stay by Alonzo’s side and do whatever he asks until he is ordered by Alonzo to shoot an unarmed person in cold blood. It’s that precise moment that serves as a wake-up call to Jake and forces him to accept that this is no longer a test. Alonzo and his unit are really no different than the criminals that they go after. Despite all of the potential he has that is evident to Alonzo, despite how much Alonzo tries to convince him that being squeaky-clean and playing by the rules doesn’t get anything done in these streets, it’s Jake’s integrity and his refusal to cross the line that makes him the biggest threat to Alonzo. It’s why Alonzo has no other choice but to put him in the ground, or at least bribe other people to do it for him.
The supporting cast includes many a familiar and talented face: Macy Gray as Sandman’s wife; Dr. Dre, Nick Chinlund, Jaime P. Gomez, and Peter Greene as the members of Alonzo’s unit; Snoop Dogg as Blue, the disabled drug dealer who is cornered by Alonzo and Jake for some crucial information; Eva Mendes as Sara, Alonzo’s mistress and the mother of one of his many sons; Cliff Curtis as Smiley, the gang leader paid by Alonzo to kill Jake; Raymond Cruz as Sniper, one of Smiley’s men; Scott Glenn as Roger, Alonzo’s friend who is actually a major drug trafficker; and Raymond J. Barry, Tom Berenger, and Harris Yulin as the Three Wise Men. (There is also a brief appearance by Terry Crews as a gang member who resides in The Jungle, where Sara and her son both live) All of these performances, combined with Fuqua’s impressive direction, Ayer’s sharp writing, and Mauro Fiore’s cinematography, make Training Day so incredibly memorable and terrific, as we venture through Los Angeles with Alonzo and Jake, and become more disturbed and unnerved by what we see and who we meet as the day goes on.
Training Day received both glowing reviews and box-office success. It also led to Denzel Washington finally winning his second Academy Award, this one for Best Actor In A Leading Role, which many people felt was a long time coming and was an award that he should’ve gotten back in 1993 for his performance in Malcolm X. It also did wonders for the careers of Antoine Fuqua, who collaborated with Denzel again on The Equalizer, The Equalizer 2, and The Magnificent Seven, and for David Ayer, who went on to write and direct his own films, including Street Kings, End Of Watch, Harsh Times, Fury, Suicide Squad (which Ayer is hoping to eventually release a director’s cut for, as the film was taken away from him by Warner Bros. during post-production), Bright, and The Tax Collector.
Training Day came out twenty years ago today. What a journey. I finished the first draft in December, 1995. I had nothing to my name. I didn’t even have a bed or a refrigerator. Just a script I knew was special. It launched an entire career. #Grateful pic.twitter.com/ob8vtxABL8— David Ayer (@DavidAyerMovies) October 5, 2021
(That sound you just heard while reading Ayer’s résumé was Roxana growling angrily like Marge Simpson)
Back in 2004, when it was so much easier to laugh at and enjoy his work, Dave Chappelle aired an episode of Chappelle’s Show that featured Wayne Brady as guest host, and the two of them appeared in a skit that not only parodied Training Day (and was also inspired by a joke made earlier that season by the late, great Paul Mooney), but also changed the way that we looked at Wayne Brady.
About seven months after Training Day was released, another story that was partly inspired by the Rampart scandal was brought to life, only it premiered on television instead of in movie theaters. The show was every bit as brutal, hard-hitting, and uncompromising in its depiction of police work in Los Angeles as Training Day was, if not more so. It changed the way that its lead actor was seen by both the public and by his colleagues in Hollywood, as he was mostly known for playing lovable good guys.
That story was The Shield, which aired on FX, and starred Michael Chiklis, who won an Emmy, a Golden Globe, and a Television Critics Association award for Best Actor. (It also came very close to being called Rampart instead of The Shield, but to avoid any additional difficulties with the L.A.P.D., such as Chiklis actually being pulled over by a police officer and asked to explain just what kind of television show he was making, the title was changed at the last minute)
In February 2017, CBS aired Training Day, which took place 15 years after the events in the original film, and starred the late, great Bill Paxton as SIS detective Frank Roarke and Justin Cornell as Officer Kyle Craig. It only lasted for one season, and though all 13 episodes were filmed before Paxton’s death, CBS chose not to recast the role of Roarke and soon decided to cancel the series altogether.
If there’s one thing that can be said about Training Day after all these years, it’s that the film is definitely not another piece of ‘copaganda.’ The very definition of the term, according to Wikipedia, is “…news media and other social institutions [promoting] celebratory portrayals of police officers with the intent of swaying public opinion for the benefit of police departments and law enforcement.” And Training Day, which shows what can happen to someone in a world of corruption when they decide to say “no,” is anything but celebratory. It shows Alonzo as a bully/liar/thief/murderer who refuses to accept anything but worship and fear from the people around him. It shows Jake fighting for his life against his fellow officers and his hope of making a difference as a detective practically destroyed over the course of the day.
Most of all, it shows what can (and often does) happen to actual good cops who step up and try to do something about the corruption that is happening in their own departments. Cops like Laura Kubiak, Shannon Spalding, Danny Echeverria, Lorenzo Davis and to Isaac “Ike” Lambert, Stephen Mader, and of course, Frank Serpico. They end up getting fired, demoted, and/or forced to quit and pursue other employment after constant harassment and bullying by their fellow officers who don’t appreciate working with someone who they view as a “rat.” So many of us have lost count of how many reasons we’ve been given to say “Abolish the police,” “Defund the police,” “F-ck the police,” and “All Cops Are Bastards.” Even though Training Day ends with one cop going home to his family, and another cop realizing that he is a sheep compared to the bigger and badder wolves who are about to devour him, it remains a stark reminder of why we say this about the police, and how they won’t stop giving us more reasons to keep saying it.
Training Day is now streaming on HBO Max and on Netflix.
Header Image Source: Warner Bros.