How loathsome does the background of a film have to be to cancel out technical virtues? It's a question that comes up for me often these days, and I have trouble resolving it about the 2001 movie Training Day.
I first saw it some years ago on video and was sickened by its LA inner city setting. Yet scenes from Training Day have stuck in my mind since; feeling slightly guilty, I borrowed the Blu-ray disc from Netflix to see how it would go down on a second viewing.
No route around it: the script and direction are far superior to most bent-cop action movies. The storyline doesn't try to outsmart itself or its audience -- aside from a few contrivances, it actually makes sense, with just enough, but not too many, twists. Director Antoine Fuqua and David Ayers, the script writer, build dramatic tension by tightening the screws within scenes as well as from one to the next. Finally, Denzel Washington -- as the narc who makes his own law -- is both winning and creepy, with immense screen presence.
But that's not why I'm bothering to write about Training Day. It has one other -- I suppose you have to call it -- distinction. I've never seen a film that so unsparingly portrays the dysfunctional world of inner city black and hispanic life. It's all there: the ugly clothes and tattoos, the incessant vulgar language, the ear-battering rap music, the threatening attitudes, violence. No sentimentality, no hearts of gold.
The "making of" feature on the disc shows that it was actually shot in some east LA hellhood, with real gang bangers as atmosphere and real rap "stars" in supporting roles.
What am I complaining about? Shouldn't the sets, actors, and extras for a drama be as realistic as possible, particularly when the environment is essential to plot points?
Yes, but. I don't blame the director and actors for creating a vivid, if often disgusting, picture of the terrible life "style" of the urban underclass. Still I'm appalled by an audience that considers it cool, or just normal, hey it's all good.
What would an audience who lived in Los Angeles in the 1930s say if they watched Training Day and saw what had become of parts of their city? Oh, sure, there were mean streets in the city then too -- Raymond Chandler sometimes described them -- but at their worst nothing like the depravity in this film.
Out of curiosity I looked at the customer reviews at Netflix and IMDb. To judge from the writing, most were by young people, and rightly touted it as an exciting movie. Maybe it's asking too much for sociological comment too. But nothing I read indicated any reaction other than acceptance of the blighted life that drug dealing, the welfare state, and the Mexican invasion have created. Sometimes, tolerance creates the intolerable.