It's one of Denzel Washington's trademarks to cruise along on a vibe of foxy good humor. In Training Day, he does it ironically. He plays a show-off bad guy like a movie star who is so eager to play a show-off bad guy that he wants you to revel in his every fancy low-dog move.
As Alonzo Harris, an LAPD narcotics detective with a thoroughly ambiguous agenda, Washington talks a ferocious blue streak, a babble of one-upmanship that is always a little amused. The put-on playfulness is meant to be sinister. It's his way of saying ''If only you could guess what I'm hiding!'' When we first see Alonzo, he's sitting in a coffee shop dressed in a black knit skullcap, a black leather jacket, a buttoned-up black shirt, and a complicated array of silver chains, complete with crucifix. It's not clear whether this Barry White-goes-Islam ensemble is an undercover disguise or simply a West Coast police sergeant's notion of casual Friday, but then, nothing about this man is to be taken lightly.
Seated across the table is Alonzo's partner-for-a-day, Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke), an eager rookie who is up for promotion to the elite narcotics squad. The older cop immediately orders his fresh-faced colleague to shut up so that he can finish his newspaper. Moments later, as they drive around in a jet-black custom Cadillac sitting high off its wheels, Alonzo's badgering continues, and a theme emerges from his drill-sergeant ''training'' patter: If you're an officer who wants to work the streets, the only way to survive is to trash the rules. Alonzo makes his new underling buy some pot, and then, at gunpoint, he forces him to smoke it. It turns out to be laced with PCP, and for a few scenes, we take in the world through Jake's flipped-out eyes, complete with puke-green fluorescent-flash images. A little later, Jake violently interrupts a couple of crackheads who are trying to rape a Catholic schoolgirl, and Alonzo doesn't even bother to arrest the perps. He'd rather intimidate them with a hunting knife, followed by a pair of Smith Wessons pointed at highly sensitive body parts.
The image of a powerful black man getting off on gratuitous police brutality -- in L.A., of all places -- is provocative, if not downright subversive. Washington, in this evil-genius hustler mode, is an expert at throwing out words like happy punches, and for a while, as ''Training Day'' proceeds in its seemingly random, two-cops-in-a-car way, we wonder: Is Alonzo meant to be a South Central heir to ''The French Connection'''s Popeye Doyle, or is he a stone-cold sociopath? Do his realpolitik street lectures have a design, or are they just filling up screen time? Without revealing the answer, I'll just say that Alonzo has a lot more on his mind than teaching Jake to be a better law enforcer.
The more we learn about his plan, though, the more that Washington's performance seems a bad-to-the-bone stunt, a glib dabble in malevolence; it's less character study than career move. His last picture, the super-square football rouser ''Remember the Titans,'' was a hit, but a bland one, and Washington must have realized that he was in danger of letting himself get turned into a tough-talking liberal saint. ''Training Day,'' as directed by the energized hack Antoine Fuqua (''The Replacement Killers,'' ''Bait''), is a case of synthetic sensationalism, a glorified star-image makeover that grows glossier and more monotonous as it goes along. There's no denying that Washington can play a rococo villain with flip ebullience, but I fervently wish he were doing it in a movie that paid more than lip service to the real world.
The picture is structured as poor, naive Jake's story. This training day was supposed to be his big break, and instead he's dragged into a nightmare of extortion, execution, and the sleaziest of pop-thriller ethnic stereotypes. For all of the recent high-profile protests mounted by Arab groups, or by Italian enemies of ''The Sopranos,'' you'd think that Hispanics in this country might have grown a little tired of seeing Hollywood reduce them to tattooed beer swillers in tank tops calling each other ''homes.'' Thrown in with a handful of these goons, Ethan Hawke is like a coed virgin at a frat bash, and the movie turns ugly in its sadism, like a perverse cross between ''Midnight Express'' and ''Falling Down.''
It's a thankless role, and Hawke, with his espresso-bar goatee, simply isn't up to its exploitation meanness; we fundamentally don't believe in him as a physical threat. Then again, about the only thing tawdrier than the violence in ''Training Day'' is the series of jaw-dropping plot coincidences that propels the entire last act. (Gee, that Catholic schoolgirl just happened to be...) By then, the audience, drawn by the chance to see Denzel Washington in a new (dark) light, may have given up on a movie that is hardly worthy of his efforts.