Here's another film whose twentieth anniversary zipped past in the blink of an eye. Back in 2001, Training Day had the look of Warner Bros. throwing considerable resources - stars, money, a thrusting young director in Antoine Fuqua - at a script by a white screenwriter (David Ayer, fresh off The Fast and the Furious) that tessellated with the kind of material that had sustained the 1990s' New Black Cinema: a tale about a rookie detective (a fresher-faced Ethan Hawke) enduring a 24-hour crash course in the dark arts of L.A. narcotics work care of grizzled partner Denzel Washington. The studio threw enough at the project to make it a hit, and then - more surprisingly - to get it into that year's awards conversation. (The Hughes brothers, who'd made 1995's comparatively underpromoted Dead Presidents for Disney, must have wondered what they'd done wrong. They could not have been alone in this.) The Academy may have mistook Training Day for a film that had something significant and lasting to say about policing and race-relations in 21st century America, yet Fuqua's subsequent career has revealed it, if it ever really needed revealing, as chiefly a swaggering, fake-it-'til-you-make-it pose: both a feature-length extension of the rap videos this filmmaker had cut his teeth on, and an expensive upgrade on all those millennial vehicles for rappers that didn't have these contacts and went straight to DVD instead. It's still an entertaining pose, granted, and the actors ensure it stays at least semi-grounded; what we end up revisiting is an example of the star system bolstering a screenplay that had no right to generate anything this watchable and sporadically tense.
It boils down to an old Hollywood standby, the odd couple: someone must have realised only sparks can follow from putting Malcolm X in a patrol car with one of the milquetoasts from Dead Poets Society. Playing the boyish family man to Washington's self-asserting big bad wolf, Hawke more than holds his own - glimpses here of the adventurous and instinctive performer into which he would mature - and the two leads keep pushing one another, much as these characters egg one another on. That's something to cling to, as is some effective location work (on actual, little-filmed inner city backstreets) and the frankly stacked supporting cast that integrates Nineties holdovers (actors you'd forgotten were in it: Scott Glenn, Tom Berenger, Raymond J. Barry, Peter Greene) with distinctly 2001 faces (Snoop Dogg as a dealer on wheels, Macy Gray as a mouthy suspect's wife, the much-missed Eva Mendes as Washington's squeeze, Dr. Dre - forgot about him, too - among Washington's goon squad). Yet all this is secondary, when it counts, to the business of Denzel waving a gun around and Antoine shooting Denzel waving a gun around, and despite frequent cutaways to a sizzling sun apparently coming into land at LAX, everyone appears too deodorised - too concerned with looking cool - for this plot to break real sweat. It's impossible not to watch Training Day now without being reminded of The Wire, which premiered on HBO within months of Denzel winning the Oscar, and the movie's gloss suffers from mental juxtaposition with the series' graft and grit: you hear David Simon snorting disdainfully at one of Ayer's more outrageous dramatic contrivances (the wallet), and the finale now seems scarcely less implausible. This was as close as the studios could get to the streets in 2001 - but it still wasn't enough, and it says a lot about diminishing ambitions in La-La Land that Fuqua has spent the intervening years shepherding Washington through three Equalizer films, including the latest (opening next week), which would seem to be the Equalizer version of Holiday on the Buses. Is that cool?
Training Day returns to selected cinemas from tomorrow.