Ethan Hawke was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal of Jake Hoyt, an LAPD rookie whose ambition to make it to detective sees him driven towards a series of ethical compromises on his first day on the job with experienced boss Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington). Ultimately, it was Washington who won the Oscar for Training Day, but the film is actually played out through Hoyt's point of view, which might well make him the main character under normal circumstances, i.e. if he wasn't playing opposite a megastar. The dilemmas are all Hoyt's, the sympathy lies with him, it is his bright-eyed optimism that takes the shellacking.
But there's no denying the power of Washington's performance. It dominates the whole film, as Alonzo plays Hoyt for the rookie he is, leading him into an ethical mire so deep than only the true and the just - the incorruptible - have any real chance of escape, and even then, only after a sound beating or three and a few brushes with death.
You could say that Hoyt has only himself to blame: if he weren't so damn ambitious, he wouldn't fall so readily into Alonzo's clutches. In that, there's a whiff of contrivance here, but no matter, it's nice to find an action film that rides along on more than air. David Ayer has written a strong script, and director Antoine Fuqua deals well with its subtleties and twists and turns.
Paradoxically, it is the strong presence of Washington himself as Alonzo that is the film's greatest weakness. You might say that Washington was being brave in taking on such a negative role - and he does it so well - but ultimately, Ayer and Fuqua have contrived to cast him as a tragic figure. How can that be? There are no mitigating circumstances for Alonzo, he's just a bent creep that everyone hates or fears. How did he get that way? What's his story? We don't know, we never find out. He has no right to elicit sympathy. Die, fucker, you deserve to. As an action flick, it's right up there, but as a study in corruptibility and corruption, Training Day ultimately collapses under the imposing presence of its star. So, go on, blame Hollywood.