Written by David Ayer
My first thoughts while reading Training Day were that this story took itself way too seriously. It feels, at times, like a parody of a cop/drug dealer war movie. While the film came out in 2001, this script was written, to my knowledge, around 1995, at a time when I’m guessing there were many buddy cop films but not many gritty, violent cop dramas. David Ayer would later go on to direct End of Watch (2012), about two cops in over their heads with a bunch of gangbangers and a drug cartel. End of Watch felt like an extension of the really good television show Southland which ran for a season on NBC before being picked up by TNT. Both End of Watch and Southland dealt with cops who weren’t clearly good guys or bad guys. Their work was both physically and morally taxing. In Southland, there was one particular storyline that encouraged the idea that cops are just another gang in Los Angeles, at least when it comes to dealing specifically with other gangs.
So Training Day feels redundant, but it might not have been so at the time, where there were more movies like Lethal Weapon than End of Watch. Being a cop in the world of Training Day feels like becoming a soldier, except you don’t always know who the enemy is. The biggest problem with the story, however, is how simplistic the conflict became.
I’ll backtrack just a little bit. We follow Jake Hoyt, a green, rooking cop on his first day of training in narcotics with a detective named Alonzo Harris. These characters couldn’t be any more different, which is good, typically, for generating conflict within a story. Alonzo doesn’t do anything by the books, and this immediately challenges Jake’s sense of binaries, right and wrong, black and white. Alonzo tries to teach young Jake about the lay of the land, proving at times to be right that the same rules don’t apply here. Alonzo will let certain transgressions slide in return for information on bigger goings on in the area. It’s not as simple as Jake imagined in this world set within Los Angeles, and it’s all in the name of catching the big fish.
Jake wants to be a detective, and Alonzo promises him that if he plays by his rules, he will make detective one day. The question for Jake is whether or not he wants to abide by the law as he knows it or the law as Alonzo tries to define it.
These are all interesting questions, and it’s only later that the dilemma of the story begins to fall apart in favor of a more traditional action film. On a couple occasions, Jake considers getting out of Alonzo’s car and essentially leaving the force (or simply getting reassigned to a different department). It’s hard to tell if Alonzo wants Jake to stick with him or if he doesn’t really care. Later, as Alonzo becomes increasingly evil, Jake is never forced to answer the question posed early on about the strength of Alonzo’s law or the actual law.
Well into the film, Alonzo and his team (including Jake) raid a man’s home who appeared to be a friend of Alonzo early in the story. Alonzo shoots him, and they take the man’s money (a lot of money). The group comes up with their version the story (in which the man fired first), and they will say that Jake killed him. Alonzo offers Jake a substantial amount of money, and it’s clear that by taking the money, Jake would be putting the other officers at ease about whether or not he will squeal to the higher ups. As an insurance policy, Alonzo persuaded Jake to smoked a PCP-laced cigarette earlier in the story. He tells Jake that he has no choice. If he fights them on their version of the story, Alonzo will show the bosses how Jake was high at the time.
It’s a little silly, this moment, but it serves to demonstrate how screwed up Alonzo is, as if it wasn’t clear already. But at the same time, when Alonzo’s evil becomes more concrete, the central dilemma of the film disappears. There is no question about what Jake should do. It’s completely obvious now that Alonzo is messed up, and his sense of the law is flawed.
When Jake continues to resist taking the money, Alonzo brings him into a neighborhood called “the jungle” and abandons him to die, knowing the local thugs won’t take kindly to a cop. Jake survives because earlier he saved a woman’s life who happened to be related to one of the thugs (a little unbelievable given the size of Los Angeles), and he sets out to get revenge on Alonzo. Now, this is where it becomes something like Terminator 1 vs. Terminator 2.
I guess, what I’ve been trying to say about the central question of the film, is that Jake was presented with a choice early on. He makes a decision based on what information he has, but this question is never paid off. The decision is made for Jake when Alonzo proves to be straight up evil (or at least self-involved to the point of endangering his own life and through that endangering his partner’s life in the name of saving his own ass). Jake never makes a concrete decision one way or another.
He goes along with Alonzo’s little raid that ends with a man getting shot, but he doesn’t take the money which would have cemented his place in the group. So Jake chooses a little of both. He’s always in the middle. Before he can ever admit that Alonzo might be onto something, Alonzo leaves him for dead, meaning the choice is made for Jake.
The third act of the story isn’t about the question posed in the first act. Instead it’s like any other number of films about a guy trying to kill another guy. Sure, Jake does decide to get revenge on Alonzo (using the money Alonzo stole as his evidence that he didn’t kill the man despite Alonzo’s version of the story), but this also seems a bit reckless.
Okay, I don’t actually know what Jake should have done. The beginning of the story focuses on Jake at home with his wife and young daughter. This part of the story could be completely cut out because it has nothing to do with the rest of the story. It’s just there to give us a reason to like Jake. At the same time, with this backstory in the back of my mind, I imagined that Jake might’ve forced himself to walk away from this mess because he didn’t want to further endanger his life and thus further endanger his family’s life.
That wouldn’t make for a great ending, though.
Maybe I’m missing something, because the ending doesn’t feel wrong, but it also doesn’t feel right. Really, there are just so many plot elements that don’t feel natural. Alonzo’s character feels a little too extreme, and his freedom feels unrealistic, but I don’t really know if it’s realistic or not.
At the end of the day (the story takes place over the course of one day), we learn that Alonzo made a bad deal of some kind, and he owes someone a lot of money or else he’s dead. So when his raid with Jake and the boys was about saving his own ass, getting the money and making the deal that night. This makes Alonzo less interesting. His decision to raid the place, and thus turn on what appeared to be an old friend, meant something to his character or what we thought of his character. Was he really just playing the old man to get information? Did he always suspect the guy of holding something back? Does he act this way with everyone on the streets? In other words, are they all just there to service him in whatever he needs to do? And while you can figure out an answer to all those questions based on what he does, the ultimate answer to Alonzo’s character isn’t nuanced. He’s just a violent asshole.
There is no end game other than to get the money he needs. But why does Jake need to be there? Maybe Alonzo really thought he could remake Jake in his own image, but that’s also a lot to ask out of one single day on the job. And this isn’t just any day, either. It’s stated, eventually, that Alonzo has to make that deal that very night. If I were Alonzo I would be stressed. I would have a plan to get the money and get the deal done. I wouldn’t want there to be any variables that could get in the way, like a partner who resists your morally bankrupt way of doing things.
So Alonzo could very easily just tell Jake to wait until the next day, once things are sorted out.
Now, the reason Alonzo doesn’t do this suggests something about his character. He must have really wanted Jake to pan out. But I don’t understand why. Why does it matter to him? His plan from the beginning is to essentially blackmail Jake into doing what he wants (the PCP again), but he also wants Jake to want what he wants.
I keep going over it in my head, but everything Alonzo says to Jake about the way he does things feels undercut by his ultimate need to get this money and make this deal. Everything he says is just to make sure Jake doesn’t get in his way, so does he really believe what he says? Probably, it just doesn’t matter so much.
I think one way to judge a good script is if the characters ever stop feeling like themselves. In this script, like many (but not all), there is a twist. When we learn that Alonzo has to make this deal, it sheds new light on him and Jake’s relationship to him. What’s irritating is that when Jake next sees Alonzo, his character on the page doesn’t read as the same character. It’s like we’re talking to his very similar but different twin brother, or Alonzo is now possessed or something. He just doesn’t feel like the same guy. A good twist should make you see the character in a new way, but it should make you see all the signs you overlooked at the time, like “oh yeah, that does make sense.” Here it feels like the rug is just pulled out from underneath you. The Alonzo in the third act is not the Alonzo in the rest of the story. That’s how it felt to me.
We are put in Jake’s shoes throughout this story. He is new to this world, and so are we. It’s a very common way of telling a story, by letting us get all the new information through a new character who needs that information as much as we do. The exposition in the early scenes is pretty rough:
This occurs as Jake talks to his wife. His wife is hardly a character. She’s just an example of a supportive wife with no other characteristics. She could be played by anyone. It’s a crappy character (no development, nothing), so why is she in the script? It’s so she can say things like “everyone’s saying how lucky you are. Don’t screw this up.”
Why would she say that? Jake obviously knows how important this day allegedly is. It’s so forced and unnatural. What is Lisa’s goal for saying this line? Good exposition is brought up naturally, as a character has a reason to ask the right questions to yield important information for the character and for the audience. An example is a detective. A detective asks questions because his/her goal is to solve the mystery. Lisa asks questions because… I mean, she’s supportive, but this line doesn’t make her any more supportive.
This beginning scene should just be cut, and any important exposition should just be woven into the conversations between Alonzo and Jake.
When I first started reading this script, and once I realized it was all set during the course of a single day, it began to feel like Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, but with guns and drugs. I don’t think that would’ve been a bad movie. A story about two cops who come from different background and have different perspectives of the law is inherently engaging. The questions posed, to me, were more interesting that the forced drama of Alonzo’s mission to drown Jake in allegations of drug use and unlawful shootings.
I guess I just liked the first half of the story (minus the first scene) much better than the second half. Even the first half, though, was full of somewhat ridiculous moments. It always felt like the two cops would drive and talk about their philosophies on life and the law, and then they’d see something, address it, and then discuss it. That’s not by itself bad, but the moments when they saw something felt too easy, like they would immediately address what they were just talking about or they would see an attempted rape around every corner. It made me feel like there were muggings and assault happening everywhere and the two cops only saw it when they decided to open their eyes. Based on how often they stumbled upon something I couldn’t help but think there was so much more going on that they just missed. Really, this is a problem in a lot of stories, when things only happen at specific moments in order to serve the plot and not because that’s when they would really happen. So in reality, while these two cops drive around talking, they probably wouldn’t just happen to see an attempted assault that on some level mirrors what they were talking about. Now that I think about it, Jake should be less concerned with Alonzo than with the incredible amounts of crime going on around him.
The last line of the script should have been Jake shaking his head while he walks home, beaten, muttering, “things are much worse than I thought,” while raising his hands as if in a ‘what are you gonna do?’ manner.
This story is gritty, violent, ugly, occasionally exciting, action-packed and a little silly. I think I would’ve enjoyed it more if it embraced the silliness even as it depicted the grueling violence. That would make for a more absurd but exciting point of view, in my mind. What I just wrote is basically what most of Shane Black’s movies are like.