Corrupt might not be a strong enough word to describe narcotic detective Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington) -- not when he's so beyond the reach of humanity that he'd take a contract out on a fellow officer to avoid being ratted out for murder, extortion, theft and a few milder treacheries. In short, he's a bad cop, off the pages of the Rampart Street Division scandal that still rocks Los Angeles -- and, he's about to take a rookie to school.
His mistake as a training officer is in revealing his own criminal agenda to Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke), a rookie who mistakenly envisions acceptance into Harris' elite squad of narcs leading to playing his part in the achievement of justice. He's going to be asked to play a part, all right, just not that one. Harris has plans for this kid, something like fashioning him in his own image.
Class starts early over breakfast at a diner while Harris reads his paper and puts Hoyt through a hilarious set of demands to make clear not only who is boss but by what degree of superiority, if not outright insanity. Then, they're out of there and on the road in an unmarked car doubling as a classroom on the subject of "out-of-control cop 101". The training is more like a series of rounds in a badly matched bout of words with the slugger pounding hell out of an unsuspecting sparring partner. But we're not hearing training officer here. It's more like the con is on and it goes on and on, straining Hawke to find ways to react to it all in a string of "can you top this" betrayals of the public trust.
On the job training begins with the first stop in the dope-ridden neighborhoods of Los Angeles that they're riding through. This opening lesson consists of trainee Hoyt indulging, for the first time in his reasonably short life and career, in a toke of PCP. This small disaster to Hoyt is the opening to corruption that Harris is after. The point of the exercise begins, but the newbie is resistive, if not to the drug then to the teaching.
This resistance is the thread of tension that holds the increasingly outrageous criminal episodes together on this exceptional training day. That and the revelation that Harris has a date that night with a gang of Russians who want the million dollars he owes them, with his life at stake. When Hoyt refuses to go along with what has to be done for the survival of his leader, after being so expertly manipulated, it finally dawns on Harris that the rookie's got to be removed from the scene.
There's strong stuff here, a good meal for the appetites of life-on-the-line, action-craving audiences, especially those who enjoy seeing bad cops portrayed for the world to see. Is this a promising subject for drama or what?
Washington flaunts his character's street-wise, dirty ethic with a flair that might be considered by some as "over the top" but he's in his creative element and taking us all along for the ride. Ethan Hawke plays counterpoint, eventually convincing us that youthful eagerness should not be mistaken for weakness or vulnerability. The frustration of his desire to do proper police work and disillusionment about how justice is being rendered play well in the dangerous game in which he's obliged to participate.
A small assemblage of fine character actors are brought together for a meeting designed to show that the corruption runs to the upper floors of the police and political hierarchy -- it's not just what happens at street level. This meeting, with the likes of Tom Berenger, Harris Yulin and Raymond J. Barry, is fun if confusing in terms of storyline. Other personalities of note make appearances, like Macy Gray, Dr. Dre and no other than Snoop Doggy Dogg whose involvement as a bad guy in the drug culture is convincing.
Movie wise, the interior car scenes become excessive, pushing the film 20 minutes beyond ideal length. This is to lavish upon Washington all the guts and glory dialogue he wants to luxuriate in, but it goes on way after we, and the trainee, get the point, threatening to undermine the otherwise taut direction of events. Of course, if you love the character and Washington's performance as much as director Antoine Fuqua ("The Replacement Killers") and writer David Ayer ("The Fast and the Furious") did, and many will, it isn't excessive at all.
Technical credits are pro.
Estimated cost: $45,000,000. Projected U.S. boxoffice: $77,000,000.
Rated P, for Perfidious.