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'Training Day' upends buddy-cop formula

it's a standard movie convention: A policeman is saddled with a new partner, and the new cop's personality is the antithesis of the incumbent officer's. Disagreements initially flare up, but, by the film's end, the two are the best of friends.

"Training Day" starts off by shaking hands with this familiar buddy-cop formula, and then upends it in a neatly executed judo flip.

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The yin-and-yang cops of "Training Day" are Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington), a veteran undercover narcotics detective, and Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke), a police officer looking to do more than just dispense traffic tickets. Hoyt's transfer to the narcotics division hinges on a one-day trial period, in which he must prove to Harris that he has the streetwise instincts requisite to crawl through the seedy underworld of Los Angeles.

It's no surprise that Hoyt is woefully ill-attuned to the social mores of the streets they're patrolling, or that Harris taunts the young white kid's naivete with gleeful derision. The story also seems too episodic in nature, as the two cops move from one drug bust to another at the beginning of the movie.

But that's merely a feint by screenwriter David Ayer ("U-571," "The Fast and the Furious"). What gradually becomes apparent is that the incidental nature of "Training Day" owes much in structure to Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now."

In each chapter of that 1979 Vietnam War movie, the protagonist, a soldier played by Martin Sheen, finds himself venturing deeper and deeper into an amoral jungle. In "Training Day," the setting is an urban jungle. And, just as Sheen's character meets his nemesis in Marlon Brando's Colonel Kurtz, Hoyt must confront Harris.

"Apocalypse Now" explored similarities and contrasts between two men's sense of patriotism. But "Training Day" uses its two male leads to compare notions of masculinity through observations of how each cop treats women and children.

At its core, though, "Training Day" is concerned with morality.

Like Brando's character in "Apocalypse Now," Washington's wonderfully nuanced Harris is revealed as someone who has lost his moral footing during his tour of duty. A small part of him is aware of it too, though his brutal instincts for survival have long since subsumed his conscience.

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What makes "Training Day" riveting isn't just its thriller story line - which includes an armrest-gripping suspense sequence of the highest order - but the question of whether Hoyt will capitulate to Harris's seductive pressure. Will Hoyt be tempted to adopt a style of street justice that will trigger the sort of moral decay Harris once fell into?

"Training Day" is powered by terrific performers, including Hawke, who quietly matches Washington's bravura performance with his expressive eyes. Though the movie is ill-served by a clich├ęd fistfight near its climax, "Training Day" emerges as one of the year's best Hollywood films.

'Training Day' is rated R; it contains frequent expletives, nudity, drug use, and gritty violence.