Film of the week: Denzel's

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent
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LOS ANGELES, Oct. 4 (UPI) -- What kind of man will it take to hunt down and exterminate Osama bin Laden?

You might well be tempted to send into Afghanistan someone much like the rogue L.A. narcotics cop spectacularly played by the formidable Denzel Washington ("Remember the Titans") in "Training Day."


This dark, endlessly violent action movie chronicles the one-day tryout Washington offers a naive young policeman (Ethan Hawke of "Gattaca") to see if he's man enough to join Washington's plain clothes gang of street guerrilla officers.

Washington's character has the manly presence that marks a successful commando chieftain, whether in the War on Terrorism or, as here, in the War on Drugs.

Washington is quick-witted, fearless, aggressive, profane, and brutal. It all adds up to the rare masculine charisma that allows a man to say, "Let's roll," and be confident that other men will naturally follow him into harm's way.


Although Washington, famous for the symmetrical perfection of his features, is normally almost as handsome as Cary Grant, here he is burly and ominous, yet still appealing. In fact, Washington looks surprisingly like Rafael Perez, the persuasive Puerto Rico-born cop at the center of L.A.'s recent Rampart Division brutality and corruption scandal.

During the first hour, "Training Day" intelligently explores a fundamental paradox of free societies. To survive, we desperately need the talents of these hard men. Yet, to stay free, we also need to channel their ferocious capabilities for killing people and breaking things toward lawful ends. Moreover, what do we do if strict insistence upon lawful means would keep them from realizing the lawful ends our elected officials set for them?

Through Hawke's eyes, we're forced to consider just how far we're willing to allow our dangerous men to go in the pursuit of justice. As they cruise the meanest streets of L.A., Washington introduces the idealistic but ambitious Hawke to four ever-worsening levels of police lawlessness.

First, Washington quickly demonstrates that he believes little rules -- those laws against double-parking, smoking in restaurants, jaywalking, and drinking while driving that the nice people of Los Angeles consider sacred -- don't apply to his boys, because they daily risk their lives so the nice people can worry about such trivialities.


Second, Hawke learns, larger laws -- for example, suspects' civil rights -- don't seem to matter much to Washington.

To understand the allure of being able to deal out justice unfettered by red tape, imagine that your Special Forces unit in Afghanistan had just captured some al Qaida terrorists who know where bin Laden is hiding. Would you merely read them their Miranda Rights?

If not, which laws would you be willing to break to find bin Laden? Would you use bribery? Truth serum? Torture? Would you shoot one to encourage the others? Would you kidnap their mothers and threaten to murder them? (That's how the Jordanian secret police broke Abu Nidal's terrorist ring in the 1980s). All of the above? Or would you simply look the other way while, say, your Afghan rebel allies had their unspeakable way with your prisoners?

Interesting questions, right? I don't have any answers, but if you do, then:

How far should your method for fighting terror also apply to fighting the drug plague that has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans?

Third, as the undercover cops' continue to roar about in Washington's gleaming 1978 Monte Carlo low rider, Hawke finds that, after so many years of heroism on the job, Washington has come to believe that he deserves to ignore the big laws against lining his own pocket.


If you frisk a hoodlum and find sixty bucks on him, Washington intimates, why waste your valuable time filling out paperwork so you can check it into the police evidence locker? Why not just drop it in your glove box? After all, the LAPD doesn't pay much, and Washington has a wife, a mistress, and, between them, five sons to support.

If David Ayer's script had stopped at that level of wrongdoing, Denzel Washington's "Training Day" might have become one of those movies like Clint Eastwood's "Dirty Harry" or Al Pacino's "Serpico" that instigate arguments over police ethics for decades.

Instead, the movie throws away the fascinating moral ambiguity surrounding Washington's character in the second hour when he descends to the fourth level of lawbreaking and commits numerous burn-in-hell-for-all-eternity crimes like robbery-murder.

Further, how common are "gangsta cops" in reality? I called one of the LAPD's most prominent critics, "police misconduct" lawyer Winston Kevin McKesson, a protégé of superstar attorney Johnnie Cochran. He remarked that the plot "seems a bit over the top." McKesson said he's sued many cops for excessive force, but of those he's sued, none were "a complete crook."

McKesson, though, has defended one cop who might indeed fit that description: Rafael Perez. When his theft of a million dollars worth of cocaine from the police evidence locker was finally uncovered, Perez, to win a reduced sentence, incriminated 70 fellow officers in his elite anti-gang unit. Yet, Perez ended up admitting that a large fraction of the worst abuses at Rampart -- such as an attempted murder -- were his own work, making him look less like a whistleblower and more like Rampart's criminal kingpin.


Even though Ayer wrote the first draft of his script before the Rampart scandal broke, McKesson noted that there are now "striking similarities" between the character portrayed by Washington and his client Perez. For example, both are black and bilingual, even though McKesson estimates that only three or four out of about 1,000 black LAPD officers can speak Spanish.

The movie-makers' big mistake may have been that they injected too much of Perez's blatant criminality into Washington's character. This leaves the conclusion's drawn-out struggle between Washington and Hawke ethically uninteresting.

When somebody does make all of Perez's lurid life into a movie, however, I can only hope it stars the remarkable Denzel Washington.

"Training Day" is a very hard "R" for "strong brutal violence, pervasive language, drug content, and brief nudity."

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