Nothing makes so compelling a villain as a bad cop. Of all the public services on which our lives depend, few invite such idolatry and villainization as the police. It’s a job that is tough at best and deadly at worst, carrying a special responsibility and accountability to the public. And the unique demands of police work make it easy for cops to feel isolated from fellow citizens who don’t really understand them. Put all that together, and it’s easy to see why good cops who endure all that are so easy to look up to. But it’s even easier to see why seeing bad cops disturb us so. It’s not just the abuse of power and trust. It’s our need for protection turned back against us. Dirty cops are just the worst. And for a deep dive into the world of tarnished badges and dirty blue, we’ve got Training Day, a 2001 crime thriller that walks through a world of police corruption everyone knew about but nobody knew how to stop.
The story takes place over the course of an extremely eventful 24 hours for LAPD officer Jake Hoyt. A bright and ambitious young cop, Hoyt is looking to prove himself enough to get bumped up to one of the heavy-hitter units of the force. To that end, he is paired for an evaluation ride with veteran narcotics detective Alonzo Harris, a fearsome rogue operator who acts as if he will never have to answer to anyone. As Hoyt’s training day gets underway, Harris swiftly dunks Hoyt head-first into a murky world of corruption, abuse of power and outright criminality that makes it impossible to see where the crooks end and the cops begin. Along the way, Hoyt is told again and again that this is a crash course in what real police work is like. But as Hoyt feels himself falling deeper into a hole from which there is no escape, he has only his own training and the moral code behind it to figure out how to stay alive long enough to settle and even bigger hurdle: how to be a good cop on a force seemingly devoid of them.
This is a movie with such attention to real-world detail and authenticity that it might be fun to watch, but it’s hard to look at, with its unflinching depictions of rogue officers doing whatever the hell they want in a world so used to police corruption that nobody blinks when officers steal, terrorize and murder. This movie broke a lot of ground by getting permission to film on location in known LA gang territory, with the blessing of local gangs themselves. (It’s hard to not appreciate filmmakers making even a halfway truthful movie about corrupt cops at a time when LA had—even by LA’s dubious track record—a serious police corruption problem.) But that devotion to authenticity pays off when it comes to setting the kind of bleak tone in which there can be no real heroes.
The result is a movie where one doesn’t really know exactly who to cheer for. Jake Hoyt is a decent guy—in one harrowing scene, he is literally saved by his own goodwill. But he crosses lines he knows he shouldn’t cross because if he doesn’t, it might impact his professional ambitions. It’s more than a little eyebrow raising when a cop wants to be feared more than loved. Those kinds of cops rarely get that way by walking the right side of the line. And even though Hoyt begins to figure that out, we’re unsure how much that truth repels him or compels him. Sure, he’s focused on surviving an insane day with his seriously twisted partner. But what’s he gonna do the day after that? And the day after that? There’s an Alonzo Harris inside of every Jake Hoyt. And once that realization is made, a countdown begins to the moment when one quits being a cop, figures out how to keep the demons at bay, or simply gives into them. And by the end of Training Day, we’re not sure which path Hoyt will choose.
As for demons, Alonzo Harris is a prince among them, fiendishly charismatic, terrifying in his ferocity and strangely irresistible to watch as he navigates his domain. Sure, he’s doing wicked things, but he’s mostly doing them to wicked people, and in a city this messed up, it takes a bad guy to catch bad guys, right?. This is the rabbit hole Harris has fallen down, living within a world of such convincing self-justifications that when he explains himself, it’s hard not to take them seriously. Harris enforces the law of the jungle, not the law of the city, though to hear him tell it, they’re one and the same.
The thing is, working with a guy like Harris is like accepting a tiger as a pet. It might be incredible to look at and very cool to sit next to, it will eventually become too hungry or too bored to resist killing you. And so, with grim predictability, we see what Harris really has planned for Hoyt, and that is where the movie begins asking more and more of us as we see Hoyt’s day go from bad to worse to hell on earth.
The moment of truth comes near the end when Harris learns that even a predator like himself lives within a food chain, and that there is always a bigger monster out there. There comes a point when the neighborhood folk he’s brutalized for so long decide that maybe they’ll take care of Harris himself. When he realizes it—and how he responds—isn’t just an incredible explosion of outlaw oratory. It’s an object lesson in how the tyrannous control the tyrannized. But it also sets up the movie’s ultimate lesson: even if you forget the law, some kind of justice awaits. Always.