Training Day directed by Antoine Fuqua, written by David Ayer, produced by Jeffrey Silver and Bobby Newmyer, with Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke and Scott Glenn. A WB release. 116 minutes. See mini review, page 95. Rating: NNNN
like all artists, actors have favourite tricks and mannerisms, things they can rely on when imagination fails or the director's brain flies south for the winter. Denzel Washington's trick of last resort is "the glare." Let's refer to it as the Academy Award-winning glare, in honour of his use of it to stare down Matthew Broderick in Glory.
To see it used to best effect, look at Crimson Tide, the nuclear submarine thriller in which Washington confronts Gene Hackman at his most florid, and where Hackman has more close-ups and better lines. He punches Washington in the face and Washington comes back with the glare, face frozen in moral rectitude, eyes hard enough to cut diamonds.
Washington's Oscar nomination for The Hurricane, his third for a portrayal of a historical figure (the others were for Steven Biko in Cry Freedom,and Malcolm X), prodded me to ask myself for the first time if he's the best actor in American movies. Now, on the eve of the release of his new film, Training Day, I'm asking the question again.
He has great technique, hair-trigger emotional control and commanding physical authority. There's a scene in The Siege where he conveys a range of emotions without moving -- with his back to the camera.
It's no accident that he's often cast as an authority figure. He's the natural heir to Sidney Poitier. But he's more than that, which is not to cast any aspersions on Poitier, who did most of his work in an era when there were far fewer opportunities for black actors. Poitier was forced to do the Jackie Robinson thing -- blaze a trail and carry a rep that was as much a burden as an honour.
And Poitier still owns the only best-actor Oscar ever awarded to a black actor. (Washington, Louis Gossett Jr. and Cuba Gooding Jr. all won in the supporting category.)
Poitier never had the chance that Washington now has to enjoy race-neutral casting. His blackness was always part of the point of his starring roles. Many of Washington's roles -- in The Bone Collector, The Siege, Fallen, Courage Under Fire, Virtuosity, Crimson Tide, Philadelphia, Pelican Brief and Much Ado About Nothing -- could have been played by white actors.
He's the kind of actor who makes adjustments depending on who's onscreen with him. Against Hackman in Tide, Washington goes still.
In The Siege, working opposite tricky counterpunchers like Tony Shalhoub and Annette Bening at her most devious, Washington bobs and weaves. Yes, he's playing a hard-nosed FBI agent confronting terrorist attacks on New York (and, boy, does that film look prescient now).
But he's also fooling around -- his scenes with Bening's "every side against the middle" CIA operative have so much give and take that they're damned close to actor sex. That element of play in acting is too seldom considered, especially when it comes to someone who's portrayed as many cops (seven), military men (three) and real-life characters as Washington has.
He's been a star almost from the beginning of his career. In his first film, Carbon Copy, he was second-billed under George Segal, then came out of TV's St. Elsewhere in 1988 and jumped immediately into movie leads.
He's been a steady producer ever since, averaging two pictures a year since his Oscar in 89, alternating his "serious" films for Spike Lee and Ed Zwick with mainstream genre work like The Bone Collector and The Pelican Brief. In 1996 (when Washington made his worst picture, The Preacher's Wife, and one of his best, The Siege) he appeared in major roles in six movies.
To see Washington at his best, watch his slightly smaller films.
In the bustling ensemble of Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues, his jazz man Bleek Gilliam is obviously the starring role, but he's up against actors who seem hell-bent on seizing his turf -- not just Wesley Snipes's arrogant sax player, but Cynda Williams, Giancarlo Espositio, the Turturro brothers and, in a tiny role, Samuel L. Jackson.
Now, with Training Day, he's trying on the bad-guy role, something he learned to appreciate when he played good guy Easy Rawlins in Devil In A Blue Dress, Carl Franklin's adaptation of the Walter Mosley novel.
In Devil, Washington is a man moving uneasily between Watts and the white power structure of post-war Los Angeles, armed only with his superior wits and lethal sidekick, Don Cheadle's Mouse. During the Toronto International Film Festival, where Training Day screened, Washington talked about the valuable lesson he learned watching Cheadle during the making of Devil In A Blue Dress.
"Here I was, the star," he says, "and Don had the better role."
That is, Washington discovered the attraction of playing villains. In Training Day, he gets to play a flamboyantly theatrical villain, a morally questionable L.A. narcotics cop who overwhelms his new partner, played by Ethan Hawke, with a relentless line of truth and bullshit.
Until Training Day, I'd have argued that the difference between Washington and Samuel L. Jackson is that Washington is much better at straight roles. Jackson's straightest characters, in films like The Negotiator and Rules Of Engagement, tend to be monochromatic. His best roles, in Unbreakable, Jackie Brown and Pulp Fiction, allow him to exercise his irony muscles by playing characters who comment on life as they live it. Jackson may be the jazzier soloist, but Washington can play the melody more sweetly.
If anyone had suggested a version of The Devil And Daniel Webster with Jackson and Washington, Jackson would have been the obvious choice for the Devil.
Not any more.