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Training Day portrays reality with a corrupt cop, what a surprise!

Knight Ridder Newspapers

When I heard Ethan Hawke was playing a cop in his new movie, “Training Day,” I worried he wouldn’t be able to wear his trademarked, fresh-from-the-bottom-of-the-hamper wardrobe. Don’t worry, though. He’s an undercover cop, so his clothes still look like hell.

Even if the clothes are right, there’s something off in “Training Day,” one of those stories about a naive protagonist who becomes wiser. But “Training Day” is uninterested in the innocent (Hawke) because it’s so jazzed and entertained by the spectacle of Denzel Washington, working his bad-guy mojo as he slaughters this lamb.

This is the meanest character Washington has ever played, and I’m not forgetting that he was the devil. Here, he’s a crooked L.A. cop, breaking Hawke in on a first day that will include drugs and booze, an assault and several brushes with death. The movie pays lip service to the law, with Hawke protesting that he really shouldn’t smoke crack on duty, but “Training Day” is so interested in thrills that it goes beyond making him naive. It makes him brainless.

Washington effortlessly blows Hawke off the screen, and the misconceived script makes it seem as if being a good guy means being dull (it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that “Training Day” was rewritten to give Washington a bigger, showier part and that, in the process, the movie lost its focus).

Which is not to say that “Training Day” is a total bust. It’s entertaining to watch Washington trash his dignified image, and there’s something powerful about hearing him ape the language of superiority the cops who mauled Rodney King used a decade ago. But when the movie reluctantly metes out his comeuppance, it isn’t strong enough. “Training Day” has been made with style and confidence, but it doesn’t know whose side it’s on.