For me, the cop drama has always been the close sibling of the military movie. They may arm themselves with different artillery, and borrow from different cinematic traditions, but it's still all about "To Serve and Protect." I think American culture drills into our heads the idea that the highest form of service one can perform in life is for their country. It doesn't matter if it is on the front lines of combat in a foreign country, or the front lines of Smalltown, U.S.A. -- cops and soldiers are our Greatest American Heroes, and you better bow appropriately when they march by.
However, because America is also a nation of contradictory impulses, we need to knock down what we place so high up on a pedestal -- that which we worship we also want to see fall from grace. (It makes us feel better about our own failings, at least.) Perhaps that is why it is difficult to recall a cop movie made in the last twenty years that doesn't somehow deal with police corruption. In fact -- and this is an entirely informal survey -- I'd be hard-pressed to name a single modern cop flick that didn't revel in the seamy underbelly of life behind the badge. According to the movie universe, law enforcement is a noble profession, but it is also an ugly one -- and no archetype is beloved more by filmmakers than the Big Bad Dirty Cop.
'Training Day' is probably the most successful example of the Big Bad Dirty Cop movie from the past couple of decades. It was a pretty big hit at the box office back in 2001, it earned generally positive critical notices and even scored some Oscar gold, with a Best Supporting Actor nom for Ethan Hawke and a Best Actor win for Denzel Washington. The plot is pretty straightforward. Hawke is rookie charge Jake, who's "training day" sees him assigned to ride with Washington's Alonzo, a hardened cop so crazy and crooked he'd eat Dirty Harry for breakfast. Alonzo breaks just about every rule in the book of Internal Affairs: making Jake smoke crack in his first ten minutes on the job, shooting fellow cops if it suits his needs, and spouting kooky cop platitudes all along the way. Though I couldn't figure out if he was supposed to be funny or not, this is a guy you don't want to fuck with.
I find it somewhat odd that Hawke landed the Best Supporting Actor Oscar nom while Washington took home the Best Actor trophy -- not because Washington doesn't nail the role perfectly, but because Hawke is actually the film's main character and has the most screen time. Technicalities aside, Washington is 'Training Day,' and the film would have been completely ridiculous if his performance didn't work. His Alonzo is the ultimate Big Bad Dirty Cop -- just unhinged enough to be appropriately larger-than-life (near mythic, even) but not so over-the-top as to become a caricature. Sorry for the cliche, but Washington totally rips it up.
Too bad, then, that for me the film ultimately lets Washington down, with a script that abandons his character in a third act so ludicrous I was left genuinely incredulous. I won't ruin any of the plot "twists" (which I found kinda obvious anyway), suffice to say all the challenging moral questions the film initially poses are not only never answered, but betrayed by a needlessly upbeat ending that recycles the climax of a million other standard action thrillers. 'Training Day' works in its first two-thirds because it dramatizes a reality where the line between good and bad is wafer-thin, and the moral choices Jake must make are not clear-cut. There is no one right course of action, no one obvious way out, no one simple solution. But the screenplay throws that away with a neat and tidy wrap-up that meshes poorly with the ambiguous and gritty reality the film (and its cast) strove so hard to create. The world view of 'Training Day' says the bad cops are not always punished, and the good ones must make compromises and work within the system if they are to weed out corruption. The conclusion seems to suggest exactly the opposite.
Still, 'Training Day' is worth seeing, not only for the performances by Washington and Hawke, but because for at least most of its runtime, it is an engaging thriller. Antoine Fuqua directs with attitude to spare, so the film coasts along on its energy alone. It's not enough to surmount the film's disappointing finale, but for its first two-thirds or so, 'Training Day' is a pretty suspenseful, thrilling ride.
'Training Day' boasts one of the best-looking presentations I've yet seen on an HD DVD release. It is sometimes hard to articulate exactly what it is that gives a video transfer that little something extra-special, and I'm not sure what it is about 'Training Day,' either -- it just has that eye-popping, film-like look that makes you go, "Cool!"
All the elements that make for a great demo disc are well in evidence here: a great print free of any defects or artifacts, rock-solid blacks, excellent contrast, pitch-perfect sharpness, great colors, and no film grain or noisiness even in the darkest-lit scenes. Sure, sometimes 'Training Day' does suffer just a tad from that slightly processed look, with muted hues in some scenes and slightly unrealistic colors in others (most of the outdoor daylight scenes have that orange "atomic glow" about them), but it is all rendered so smoothly and cleanly that it is hard to nitpick.
I also dug the terrific sense of depth to the image, especially the nighttime scenes. I experienced a couple of those great geek-out moments when you forget you're watching video and instead feel like you're looking out a window. And the film's fast-moving climax -- however much it disappointed me narratively -- looked great, with no pixel break-up or other motion artifacting (which is so often a problem with over-the-air and satellite HD broadcasts). With so many superlatives to heap upon 'Training Day's transfer, it is hard to imagine anyone being disappointed by the video quality of this HD DVD.
I first reviewed 'Training Day' on HD DVD back in May 2006, and though I gave the disc's Dolby Digital-Plus track high marks, it wasn't without a moment of hesitation. Because as good as sounded, it was hard to be unequivocal in my praise knowing that there was also a Dolby TrueHD soundtrack encoded on the disc that early adopters couldn't yet gain access to since the first-gen Toshiba HD-A1 players had yet to support the format. But now that TrueHD is finally here (see my recent Spotlight report on the arrival of the format and how you can upgrade your player to hear it), that's all moot. This is the very first title I chose to review that features a Dolby TrueHD soundtrack, and 'Training Day' boasts enough action scenes with aggressive sound design to qualify it as a fine choice with which to do my first TrueHD versus Dolby Digital-Plus comparison.
First, a few notes regarding how I went about comparing the various soundtracks on the disc. To "unlock" the Dolby TrueHD track, I decided to skip HDMI and use the analog outputs on my Toshiba HD-XA1 and feed them directly into my receiver's analog inputs. I'm currently using the Denon AVR-1803 A/V Dolby Digital/DTS Surround Processor, but I also invested in a new Panasonic SA-XR57S Home Theater Receiver just this past week. Probably the cheapest consumer receiver currently on the market that can give you Dolby TrueHD, the Panasonic is a solid little deck that gave me an idea of how the format sounds on the kind of equipment that is more likely within reach of the average consumer.
Note, however, I had a few quirks. Like most of the Dolby Digital-Plus tracks on Warner's early HD DVD titles, the volume level of the Dolby TrueHD mix on 'Training Day' is encoded at a considerably lower level than average, so you'll have to turn your audio knob up around 20db or so to compensate. (That's alot.) Also note that regardless of what type of receiver you are using or how you are connecting it, be absolutely sure to visit the "Setup" menu of your Toshiba HD DVD player and set the "Dialogue Enhancement" feature to "Off." If you don't, it will pretty much ruin the Dolby TrueHD experience, and the only way to really hear the format in all its glory is without any artificial processing enabled in your audio chain.
With the setup stuff out of the way, it was time to fire up 'Training Day.' As I wrote in my initial review of the Dolby Digital-Plus track, the film's sound design has a lot going for it. Gunfire, explosions, a driving score and a pulsing hip-hop beat -- all are very lively in the mix. So it wasn't too hard to find a few scenes in which to put the Dolby TrueHD track through its paces. And the results were pretty much what I expected -- the differences are not necessarily night and day, but they are considerable, and became more pronounced the more in-depth I got in my A/B comparisons. Which is all a good thing. Quite frankly, I don't think anyone expected that Dolby TrueHD would necessarily sound like a completely new experience, but instead be more akin to the upgrades we've have heard in the past between Dolby Digital and DTS, or Dolby Digital and Dolby Digital-Plus. But based just on 'Training Day,' I would go a little farther and say that at times, Dolby TrueHD delivered such a significant upgrade that I can't imagine choosing any other option if a Dolby TrueHD track was included on a disc.
The first scene I picked in which to do a direct compare was the scene where Ethan Hawke squeals on Denzel Washington and the FBI (complete with helicopters) descends upon their ramshackle house in the inner city. Dynamic range here is excellent on both tracks, but better defined on the Dolby TrueHD. The mid- and high-range especially sound more real and pronounced, with subtle shadings to speech and specific sound effects more discernible. Yes, such differences are not immediately apparent and won't initially blow you away, but the more I listened with my eyes closed, tuning all visual stimuli out, the more I could hear the improvements. Low bass is also more powerful in TrueHD -- during this scene as well as all throughout the film's extended climax, I heard occasional rumblings and felt vibrations that went by unnoticed in Dolby Digital-Plus. Tightness with the .1 LFE is also improved -- for example, the sound of a helicopter landing in the first scene didn't feel as "wobbly" on the TrueHD, meaning it was less distorted and artificial.
But the biggest impression TrueHD made upon me was in the effectiveness of the surround channels. The rears are pretty consistently deployed in 'Training Day,' and the soundfield on the Dolby Digital-Plus track was already immersive. However, effects like the sound of ricocheting bullets bouncing across all five speakers benefited from better imaging in TrueHD, with pans of sounds between channels more seamless than I've ever heard before on a home video soundtrack. Even more surprising is how dispersed sounds are spread across the entire 360 soundfield. For example, the whooshes of helicopter blades during the first scene I demo'd are pretty easy to localize on the Dolby Digital-Plus track, but on the Dolby TrueHD they literally filled my entire listening area with a more consistent "force" of traveling sound. In all honesty, there are moments that really are jaw-drop worthy, and approach some of the better theatrical presentations I've heard. Admittedly, 'Training Day' does not sound this consistently amazing in TrueHD, but even based on just this one title I genuinely believe it is an exciting enough advancement in home theater audio that I expect early adopters will really start demanding that the studios release most or all of their titles in the format.
The previous standard DVD of 'Training Day' featured a fairly decent in unexceptional batch of extras, and they are all ported over for this new HD DVD release.
First up is the most informative of the supplements, a screen-specific audio commentary by director Antoine Fuqua. As expected, he heaps tons of praise on his stars, particularly Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke (but also his great supporting cast, including Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and a hilarious Macy Gray). But he also has plenty of on-set tidbits to share, and some technical minuate, but overall it is a pretty informative look at the making of the movie. Unfortunately, because it is a solo track, Fuqua has to carry the whole thing on his shoulders so a few slow patches mar an otherwise engaging commentary.
Unfortunately, the video-based extras are rather wanting. Sure, the twelve minutes of deleted scenes are pretty good (not essential, but not entirely throwaway either) and the four-minute alternate ending worth a watch, though like most of these things it is more an extended coda than radically different than what's seen in the finished film. But the rest of the goodies are total promo fluff. The 15-minute "HBO First Look Special" is your usual assemblage of EPK interviews, with everyone singing the praises of a movie no one has seen yet. There is little to learn here, so stick to the commentary instead.
Rounding out the package are two music videos, “#1” by Nelly and “Got You” by Pharoahe Monch, plus the film's theatrical trailer. All the video-based extras are presented in 4:3 pillarboxed video encoded at 480i, except the trailer, which is presented in 2.40:1 widescreen and 480i.
'Training Day' is a more or less riveting cop drama, directed with a healthy dose of style and very well acted. Unfortunately, it was done in for me by a conventional third act that feels recycled from countless other, less memorable thrillers. But if you're a fan of the film, you could do far worse than picking up this new HD DVD release. Granted, you won't get any new extras, but the transfer is one of the best I've yet seen on the format, and Warner has also graciously included a TrueHD Dolby soundtrack that is a real stunner. So this one is worth an upgrade if you dig the film, or just want a cool demo disc to show off your new HD DVD gear.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.