Denzel Washington does a cocksure turn in Training Day as a crooked undercover narcotics cop instructing an idealistic new partner, Ethan Hawke, in the ways of the street. That may be enough to transform a shallow picture with delusions of grandeur into a crowd-pleasing hit.

American actors rarely get a chance to sound every key in their register. This whole movie is built on Washington's seizing that opportunity while he criss-crosses Los Angeles in a souped-up, lowriding 1978 Monte Carlo.

The advance publicity has promoted Washington's performance as his first foray into outright villainy, and he does get to be more vicious than he has in any movie since the corrosive British social melodrama For Queen and Country (1988). But the cagiest aspect of his performance, and the one element of the movie that holds you rapt through a string of improbabilities and excesses, is that Washington plays this bad guy as a wised-up good guy.

When he forces Hawke to get high on PCP-laced pot, Washington manages to persuade him that it's in the best interest of the job - so he won't freak out when he's asked to take a puff, a snort or a hit while undercover. The reason Washington can make fake magnanimity work is that he is a bigger actor than the younger man: one of few performers able to portray a figure of heroic scale who is also a thinking human being. And as this rogue cop, he gets to make a show of everything, including empathy and understanding.

It's a stunningly effective performance, but it's far from great. That's because Washington is good enough to suggest he can unlock a destructive character - and the moviemakers don't provide him with the key. If part of their strategy was to show how what happens in a single shift would turn a cop stony-cynical, the strategy fails. Washington is rabid from the start, and it's not a typical workday: he's using extortion, firepower and Hawke's naivete to save his own skin.

Director Antoine Fuqua and writer David Ayers make his acting victories too easy. The filmmakers have spoken of this picture as a journey into an inner-city heart of darkness, with Washington as a cop version of Kurtz, but what they call thought is calculation.

The film is designed to coerce viewers as well as Hawke into going along with Washington's asphalt wisdom for long stretches. His key line is "You have to decide if you're a sheep or a wolf; if you want to go to the grave or if you want to go home." Put that way, who wouldn't choose to be a wolf?

Hawke maintains a pocket of sensitivity that keeps him connected with the audience. But knowingness is so much more inherently theatrical than bright-eyed ignorance, it's no wonder that instinctually we feel drawn to Washington's side. We're apt to enjoy his devilish mischief even when he's just luxuriating in his ability to make Hawke jump or flinch - when he's doing nothing more than playing "Gotcha!"

For that matter, the film is playing "Gotcha!" with the audience. It hooks us into thinking we're seeing a serious sort of action movie. It's really two venerable forms of urban adventure films: a ticking-clock thriller combined with a cat-and-mouse game. As the plot unravels it becomes clear that every seemingly disconnected encounter - whether with an old friend from the wrong side of the law (Scott Glenn) or with a trio from the law-enforcement Establishment - is actually connected, and related to a debt Washington must pay before the day is done.

When Hawke catches on, he keeps thinking he can see through Washington's manipulations. He can't - and the audience gets a charge every time Washington closes a new trap on him. That's because all the movie's vitality has gone into its gamesmanship. Not into its characters: We get one glimpse of Hawke's white-bread home life; we never meet Washington's wife and four kids, only a girlfriend and illegitimate son he keeps in a menacing part of town. And not into its sociology: The atmosphere grows increasingly stylized and the climax includes an instance of honor-among-gangbangers that smacks of pandering.

No, this movie is just what you think it is from the trailer: a wolf in wolf's clothing. At the end, Hawke survives partly because of a selfless act of law enforcement that leads to a ridiculous coincidence, and partly because he's willing to fight Washington to the death on the bad cop's own turf.

The scariest part of Training Day is that the title isn't meant to be ironic.

Training Day

Starring Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke

Directed by Antoine Fuqua

Rated R

Running time 120 minutes

Sun score **

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