After working steadily since he was 18 years old, there’s a lot that goes into a Denzel Washington movie to make it unique from any other actor in a starring role. That said, with a career that kicked off in 1977 and is still going strong today, the star’s best movie arguably came in 2001 with the release of Training Day.
While there are a lot of amazing Denzel Washington movies to choose from in which he gives a singularly spectacular performance (Glory, Inside Man, The Hurricane and Flight jump to mind), Training Day simply has something special going on that puts it at the top of his quality list. That’s saying something since he’s now literally doing freaking Shakespeare with The Tragedy of Macbeth.
For those unfamiliar, Training Day stars Ethan Hawke but is largely considered a Denzel Washington movie thanks to his performance as Detective Alonzo Harris. Hawke’s character, Officer Jake Hoyt, is an up-and-comer in the Los Angeles Police Department who is assigned a one-day evaluation under veteran narcotics detective Alonzo’s watch. It quickly becomes the story of idealized justice versus real street justice as Hoyt gets a crash course in how things work in Los Angeles’ criminal underworld and the role that corrupt cops like Alonso play in that machine. However, as time goes on, it becomes apparent that Alonzo has bigger plans for his trainee that directly service his criminal ambitions. The only question is whether or not he’s met his match with Hoyt’s “good cop” idealism.
Both actors received Academy Award nominations in acting for their respective roles in Training Day but Denzel Washington won. While it’s not exactly a competition, the fact remains that Training Day is now considered a Denzel Washington movie. In fact, it’s an actual provable fact that the movie simply wouldn’t have been the same if any other actor had stepped into the role of Detective Alonzo Harris.
During a recent appearance on The Graham Norton Show to promote another Denzel Washington movie, the actor revealed that roughly 30 to 40 percent of his lines were improvised. As a result, it’s safe to say that Alonzo was one of those rare singular performances inextricably linked to the actor who portrayed him. As if anyone needed more evidence of that, Training Day director Antoine Fuqua told Vanity Fair in 2019 that Alonzo’s infamous “King Kong ain’t got nothing on me” speech was 100 percent born from the mind of the actor at the moment. He even remembers asking the crew if they captured that moment on film because it was unlikely they would get the same read or intensity on a second run.
Ethan Hawke even highlighted what an incredible and unique actor his co-star is. The Denzel Washington movie has occasionally been accused of Hollywood racism, something Ethan Hawke has spoken about. The Guardian asked him a very thought-provoking question about the Black characters in the movie all being villains and the optics of his character, one of the only white men in the movie, being the through-and-through idealistic good guys. To his credit, the actor acknowledge that there was a conversation to be had there that wasn’t had at the time. However, he defended his co-star, noting that he was actually being subversive by playing a criminal in the face of pressure for Black actors to be nothing but role models and heroes. He even lightly scolded the interviewer for reducing his performance in Training Day to that of a “Black actor.”
The conversation around Training Day, in general, begs the question — What makes a good Denzel Washington movie? Well, that question can be either really simple or really complicated. He stole the show in Glory, but that movie in general was wall-to-wall amazing performances from top-tier actors. It was well-written and utilized everyone’s talents very well. Although they would need to be very, very skilled, another actor could have stepped into Denzel Washington’s role and the movie’s degree of acclaim would likely not diminish in any significant way.
That said, when it comes to Training Day, one could sit in a room under a bare light bulb trying to come up with an actor that could make it work as anything but a Denzel Washington movie until they die of thirst, ultimately coming up empty. It’s the mark of a good actor to make every role you take uniquely yours. No one does that better than Denzel Washington, and there’s no finer example of it than his performance in Training Day.