(2001)3.5Derek ArmstrongIn his most nefarious film role yet, Denzel Washington keeps the audience stumbling off balance, forcing them to ponder whether his unorthodox crime-fighting methods are justifiable radicalism or a deviant abuse of power. With bawdy humor and grudging praise providing counterpoint to his fierce stares and verbal intimidation, it's difficult to determine whether he's toughening a protégé through trial by fire, or laughing at a patsy he despises. Antoine Fuqua's Training Day is a violent, vigorous film sure to leave viewers uneasily processing their feelings about it. In that climate of renewed reverence for the police, the film's exaggerated portrayal of narcotics officers can't help but feel a bit uncharitable. Still, there's immediacy to the thesis that these undercover cops are so ornately jeweled, so hip to street culture, and so entrenched in their renegade philosophies that they become indistinguishable from the gangsters they're hunting. The film also understands how this world is governed by bravado, as Washington astutely and systematically manipulates Ethan Hawke's eagerness to prove he's man enough for the job. Washington alternates between visceral intensity and mere showiness in a role that's courageously unlikable, while Hawke makes the most of a soft, underwritten character. Even while including a handful of stylized camera tricks, Fuqua maintains a tense realism by filming in some of L.A.'s worst neighborhoods, using his own street credibility to convince real drug dealers and low-lifes to appear in the film. No less challenging for its flawed sensationalism, Training Day is bracing cinema.