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TV Review: ‘Training Day,’ Starring Bill Paxton

Variety logo Variety 1/30/2017 Sonia Saraiya
© Provided by Variety

Remember Denzel Washington’s Oscar-winning performance in the original “Training Day”? As crooked LAPD detective Alonzo Harris, Washington is a profane firebrand with a rapidly fraying hold on his own sanity, fueled by his delusions of grandeur and an unearned sense of righteousness. In the scene where he realizes he is about to die, he audibly thumps his own chest, approximating a swagger that is hampered by the bullet lodged in his body. “King Kong ain’t got shit on me,” he proclaims, clinging to his scraps of dignity until the bitter end.

Take that incredible performance and invert it, so that instead of commanding and complex, it’s an overwrought, scenery-chewing hack job; then you’ll have Bill Paxton’s performance as Detective Frank Rourke in CBS’ “Training Day” — a procedural homage to the Antoine Fuqua film that is one of the more aggressively terrible debuts of the fall. The film was a closed loop of a story about the abuse of power; the TV show is an open-ended case-of-the-week about how coloring outside the lines produces results. And most crucially — where Washington’s Alonzo is the sympathetic villain of the story, Paxton’s Frank is framed as the show’s avenging hero. To put it another way, the CBS show jettisons the meaning of the film for its bankable elements, using the skeleton of the film as a way to lionize rule-breaking and “going rogue” in a consequence-free moral universe.

It is reprehensible — but its clarity of vision is impeccable. This “Training Day” wants to revel in the bad behavior of older men who don’t get to do what they want anymore because of those pesky rules; in this race-swapped update, that puts Paxton in the role of the crotchety bad cop, while Kyle (Justin Cornwell) takes the Ethan Hawke role as the rule-abiding rookie. Paxton, who is better than this material, appears to be playing every scene as if it is the last scene of his life — a villainy that is so cartoonishly expansive that each of his ridiculous lines appears to be delivered in caps. “I’VE BEEN DOING THIS A LONG TIME, TRAINEE. MAYBE TOO LONG,” he intones, with the requisite dramatic pause between the two sentences. Paxton could be playing a parody of a bad guy as satire, and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference; that is how fully he commits to Frank’s monologues about how the Alamo was the last stand of American honor, or how the drug war can’t be won, just managed. In Paxton’s performance is where the fun part of this show can be found; when a beloved friend is killed during a standoff, Frank’s first reaction is: “Oh, you dumb fat son of a bitch, why couldn’t you ever run faster?”

The problem is that Paxton’s Frank is positioned in the show as a stand-in for the last gasp of a dying, purer Real America; racial stereotyping is a stand-in for machismo, where all-American muscle battles Latino gangs and a Yakuza cell. The other characters try to check Frank’s casual racism, but he, and the show, shrug their comments off in practiced dismissal. Just as he breaks those rules, he also breaks the rules of policing — and, “Training Day” unsubtly points out, he gets results. Repeatedly, in the first three episodes, “rules” and “results” are placed in opposition to each other. In these episodes, Frank burns down a house, steals drug money, interferes in an FBI investigation, stages a break-in against a lawyer he doesn’t like, gets an informant killed, kidnaps two others, allows the most wanted man in America to walk free, tortures a perp during an interrogation, tampers with a crime scene, and is responsible for the death of at least a dozen people. There is something deeply irresponsible about this show’s framing of reality — of the relationship between rules and results, especially as practiced by a man that is supposed to be a public servant.

Indeed, there is something unsubtly political in the show’s vision of what’s happening in inner cities. In “Training Day,” Los Angeles is a murder-ridden battleground of heavily armed criminal organizations; the characters’ desperation fuels their rule-breaking. The government organizations, far from being underfunded and disorganized, are seamless national security machines with endless funding and beautiful offices. In one scene, Frank battles a Yakuza crime lord wielding a katana with a sentimentally significant — and all-American — baseball bat. In another, he drawls, “Can you imagine what it must have been like back then? Back before political correctness and — what the hell do you call it? — micro-aggressions.”

It’s hard not to applaud Paxton’s commitment to hamming up every minute of his screen time as this character who is sincerely and nakedly pandering to the wounded sensibilities of men who had it better in the ‘50s. But it is also difficult to ignore what pandering like this, in the political sphere, has led to.

The rest of “Training Day” is also disappointing, but in a simpler way. The show is plagued with gauzy, lens-flared flashbacks that are stuck into storylines with all the elegance of a pig in mud, and by the third episode, every woman is primarily characterized by a sexual subplot. Los Angeles is made to seem more Angeleno with the use of a Nickelodeon-orange filter covering everything. It’s mildly entertaining. It’s also the exact opposite of everything the original “Training Day” was trying to accomplish.

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