Although he’s the title character, stammering 7-year-old Liam Sullivan doesn’t bear the entire burden of Stephen Frears’ period drama Liam. Ultimately, the whole Sullivan family is made to carry the full weight of Depression-era Liverpool, working-class anti-Semitism, and British fascism, which overloads a BBC-produced film that, like many TV dramas, is most persuasive when working on a small scale.
Because he’s approaching his first communion, Liam (Anthony Borrows) is wrestling with religious mysteries; he also catches a glimpse of his mum (Claire Hackett) naked, raising the equally puzzling matter of female anatomy. Liam’s not the only Sullivan with problems, however. Shortly after the film begins, Dad (Ian Hart) loses his job at the shipyard, and as he steeps in shame and bitterness, he comes to blame “the Jews” for his plight. (Admitting to historical anti-Semitism is a relatively new feature of Brit-TV working-class dramas; like 1999’s Solomon and Gaenor, Liam depicts vandalism of Jewish businesses.) Adding to Dad’s resentment, elder son Con (David Hart) and barely teenage daughter Teresa (Megan Burns) have both found jobs. The latter works as a part-time maid for a wealthy Jewish family, where her conscience is doubly tormented: Teresa not only helps Mrs. Samuels (Jane Gurnett) conduct an extramarital affair but also comes to prefer her kindly employer to her own harried mother. Of course, the cuckolded Mr. Samuels (David Knopov) is the owner of the shipyard that just dismissed Dad.
Liam was scripted by Jimmy McGovern, who wrote the sometimes heavy-handed Priest, and is based partially on his own childhood. It’s also derived from a novel, Joseph McKeown’s The Back Crack Boy, although the credits say that the book merely “inspired” the screenplay. It seems likely that McGovern decided to concentrate on Liam rather than the boy’s father to avoid having to dramatize the internal conflicts that quickly transform Dad from a generally easygoing guy into a black-shirted hoodlum. The problem with this strategy is that Dad’s story is much more compelling than Liam’s. Although the film often returns to the boy’s concernswhich have become familiar ones since James Joyce first wrote candidly about a Celtic-Catholic educationLiam is merely a bystander in several of the most pivotal scenes.
One of Britain’s finest character actors, Ian Hart has established his ability to play working-class roles without condescension, notably in The End of the Affair and most recently in Aberdeen. McGovern’s screenplay, however, gives Hart little to work with. By comparison, Burns’ Teresa is a fully realized character, and even the quickly sketched Mum has an indelible moment when she confronts Father Ryan (Russell Dixon), who’s been tormenting Liam and Teresa with visions of fiery damnation.
Flame is one of the film’s central motifs, and Frears presents it without subtlety; not once but twice, the director cuts from the priest’s threats of hellfire to a shot of an everyday blaze. A versatile craftsman who lately has specialized in such amiable comedies as High Fidelity and The Snapper, Frears has shown an instinct for good scripts but little ability to redeem a bad one. Liam is not entirely bad, but its final melodramatic development does leave a lingering sour odor. The film’s little momentsthe competing strains of IRA and Loyalist ballads, the political meeting halted by police truncheons, the escape to the picture showmay be clichés, but they’re truer than its big flourishes.
If it’s true that Americans, in the wake of Sept. 11, no longer like entertainments that glorify swaggering, charismatic thugs, then they’re really not going to like Training Day. Of course, you needn’t have experienced a national paradigm shift to hate this movie. It’s eminently detestable on its own terms.
When filming began, this boyz-in-blue-in-the-‘hood flick probably seemed a nifty idea. Fundamentally, it’s a chance for Denzel Washington to stray explosively from the path of righteousness: After impersonating moral exemplars onscreen for more than a decade, he plays LAPD plainclothes detective Sgt. Alonzo Harris, a drug-squad veteran who gleefully breaks the rules. The movie also features sensitive goatee boy Ethan Hawke in his first-ever policier role: straight-arrow suburban beat cop Jake Hoyt, who’s hoping to qualify for undercover work on the basis of a single day with the short-fused Alonzo. There are also sex, drugs, and hiphopthe last on both the soundtrack and the screen, with cameos by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg.
Like Dennis Hopper’s Colors, Training Day takes unsavory pleasure in the tribal alliances, mythic bloodthirstiness, and almost-rural character of gangland L.A. (The press kit, which insists that the film “comes straight from the streets,” credits its imagined authenticity in part to director Antoine Fuqua’s childhood “on the rough side of Pittsburgh.”) The scenario sends the two cops down dirt alleys so Alonzo can introduce Jake to dealers big (Scott Glenn) and small (Dogg). As an instructor, Alonzo is simultaneously exuberant and ominous; he repeatedly demands that Jake breach ethical and legal boundaries. The key question is whether Alonzo is merely an overzealous teacher or a corrupt cop with a secret agenda. You can probably guess the answer. What’s less easy to anticipate is just how contrived and implausible David Ayer’s script will become by the time it reaches its hyperbolic conclusion.
With his first feature, the silly but stylish The Replacement Killers, ex-music-video director Fuqua did a fair imitation of John Woo. Perhaps it was just the aura of star Chow Yun-Fat that gave that film its savoir-faire, though, because Training Day is much less striking. Aside from a brief sequence that depicts L.A. from the viewpoint of a man who’s just smoked PCP, the movie’s look is fairly routine. The film opens with a sunrise, but it soon becomes clear thatin typical Hollywood fashionthe action revolves around its star. Playing a wannabe-lovable rogue in full-throttle Al Pacino “hoo-hah!” mode, Washington runs away with the thing.
Now, however, he probably wishes he’d run in the other direction. CP