Denzel Washington has a coiled, controlled energy that puts tremendous power behind his coolness and grace. That quality works well for him when he plays good guys, adding complexity and ambiguity to his portrayal of heroes from the Washington Post reporter in “The Pelican Brief” to the lawyer in “Philadelphia” and real-life figures Hurricane Carter and Malcolm X. Here that cougar-like quality adds a lot of sizzle to his portrayal of a bad guy, a rogue cop who has crossed the line so many times that he doesn’t even see it any more.
Washington plays Alonzo Harris, head of an elite unit of LAPD narcotics officers. Ethan Hawke is Jake Hoyt, the rookie who has just one day to show Alonzo that he should join the unit. Jake is smart, tough, and very motivated – he wants to make detective, and this is his best opportunity. But Alonzo tells Jake that his ideas are all wrong, and that the streets and the police are very different from what he has been taught.
Jake climbs into Alonzo’s huge black Monte Carlo and before he knows it, he is smoking marijuana laced with PCP and watching Alonzo rough up attempted rapists and let them go. Like Dorothy in Oz, he knows he’s not in Kansas anymore. Alonzo is a master of manipulation, using a mix of trash talk, bullying, and charm to persuade Jake to violate every principle he has. He is constantly pushing, constantly testing. At first, Jake is so eager to be accepted that he accepts Alonzo’s view that only a wolf can catch another wolf. But when it appears that Alonzo thinks of Jake not as fellow predator but as prey, Jake decides that only one of them can survive.
Washington is dazzling in his Oscar-winning performance as Alonzo. He lets us catch a glimpse of Alonzo’s desperation as he interacts with a charming drug dealer with a taste for expensive drinks (Scott Glenn), three “wise men” who run the department, the mother of his child, and the men of his unit. With each encounter, he shows us a different approach. Hawke is just fair as the white-bread rookie, but Glenn and singers Macy Gray, Snoop Dog, and Dr. Dre make the most of small roles. The director, Antoine Fuqua, shows his music video roots with a style that is often flashy but not always in aid of the story.
Parents should know that the movie is a very strong R, with extremely rough language (including the n-word and anti-gay slurs), graphic violence (including the murder of major characters), drug use, brief nudity, and sexual references.
Families who see the movie should talk about the way that seemingly little exceptions to ethical rules end up creating very serious problems. When do the ends justify the means? This may be especially meaningful in light of the current debate about how to respond to terrorism.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Internal Affairs a better film with a similar story line, starring Andy Garcia and Richard Gere.