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October 6, 2001

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Man on a mission

Training Day, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival a few days before the terrorist attack in New York killed over 5,000 people, is a war film.

According to the production notes of the film, the war is in Los Angeles.

"Our generation doesn't have a Vietnam, and we don't have any external wars, but the war we're fighting is within -- it's inside the very heart of America," says director Antoine Fuqua, who made this gripping film to prove that audiences can embrace an unglamorous police drama.

"In communities across the country, the police and the people are constantly fighting with each other. It's an explosive situation and it's something that needs to be talked about urgently."

Fuqua, along with actor Denzel Washington agree that films like Training Day do not find backers in Hollywood.

The film revolves around Los Angeles Detective Sergeant Alonzo Harris (Washington), a veteran narcotics officer whose attitude and methods blurs the line between legality and corruption. His idealism and commitment have long been compromised and he is not worried about breaking the law.

But he is forced to think about his methodology and sensibilities when he has to train an idealistic rookie Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke).

Fuqua, whose previous film, Replacement Killers was a modest hit, says he has long admired the police dramas such as Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon.

"I was immediately drawn to the script because it reminded me of the great cop dramas of the 70s," he is quoted in the production notes of the Warner Brothers film.

"It is an interesting challenge for a filmmaker because you have to take these characters through an incredible amount of action and transformation in just one day."

Oscar-winner Denzel Washington, generally seen in inspirational roles (Remember the Titans, The Hurricane, Malcolm X), sought out the negative part in Training Day.

The star, who gets about $20 million per film, reduced his fee so that the film could be made for about $50 million; on an average star-led Hollywood movie costs $70 million.

Discussing his part, Washington (who is expected to win yet another Oscar nomination), notes: "Alonzo Harris faces people who would be glad to see him dead, and he knows it. He moves... like an occupying soldier in a bitterly hostile country, which is exactly what he is."

Fuqua says he could not have thought of a better actor than Washington to play the role. For one thing, Alonzo's character is very complex. Secondly, Washington had never played such a role -- so a complex and riveting performance can be expected from him.

"Alonzo is a fascinating character. On one hand, people would say that he's a great cop because he knows how to intimidate people and get the job done," says Fuqua. "On the other hand, people say he's clearly taken his authority way too far and become a gangster himself.

"I personally think he probably was someone who once believed in doing good. But in his world, he has learnt that he can never show vulnerability, because he'll be eaten alive."

But the film has to acknowledge Alonzo is not one-dimensional.

"Denzel shows just how incredibly human Alonzo is underneath it all," he notes. "Denzel makes Alonzo feel incredibly real, which makes him scary, sad and fascinating. You get the feeling you're watching true human nature, going into the heart of darkness."

Washington called the chance to play Alonzo "an irresistible career opportunity".

"I always look for a departure in every new role I do," he says. His last film, Remember the Titans, grossed an impressive $110 million in America.

Box office pundits predict Training Day to top $100 million but the general consensus has it that the film will gross about $70 million and have a strong DVD and video sales.

"You might say that this is the first time I've played a bad guy, but I don't really see Alonzo as bad," Washington continues. "He's confused, over the line and angry. But he's not entirely bad. I think in some ways he's done his job too well. He's learned how to manipulate, how to push the line further, and, in the process, he's become more hard-core than the guys he's chasing."

When Alonzo starts dealing with Jake Hoyt he begins, unwittingly, to reflect on his early days.

"Alonzo didn't start out like this, but he had to be more clever and cunning than the criminals he was dealing with. It taught him how to go over the line," Washington adds. "And, once you've crossed that line, it's very hard to go back."

Washington was also intrigued by the increasingly complex relationship between Alonzo and Jake.

"I think that Alonzo starts out seeing Jake as someone he can use, another potential member of his gang, but he also really wants to teach Jake to be a good cop," explains Washington. "He wants to cut to the chase and show Jake how things are really done, take the weakness out of him. The big questions for Alonzo are can he trust this kid, and can this kid survive."

Producer Jeff Silver joins the Washington fan club. "It's very exciting to see Denzel in a different type of role. What makes him so perfect for Alonzo is the empathy audiences have for him. He's so beloved that you just go with him even as he crosses the line into dangerous behavior. It was a bold move for Denzel to take on this role and I think it stretches him in a way people haven't seen before."

Watching Washington bring Alonzo to life on the screen was "really chilling," notes writer David Ayer. "It gave me goose bumps. He became so much like Alonzo. It was a scary thing."

Compiled by Arthur J Pais

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