Director: Wes Anderson; Writer: Wes Anderson (based on David Ayers’s original screenplay); Cast: Ian McKellan, Jason Schwartzman, Adrien Brody, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, and Josh Groban
When I first heard that Wes Anderson would be remaking Training Day, I was skeptical. After all, this is the filmmaker who, according to a New York Times review of Moonrise Kingdom, rendered two twelve year-olds “all the more believable by their dialogue, which encompasses such essential tenets of middle school conversation as Impressionistic painting styles, nineteenth-century German poetry, and silent-film-era costuming patterns.” Now, however, one of the most testosterone-driven films in recent memory was about to be put in the hands of a man who uses… well, actual hands for fight sequences. And while I can’t confirm that the words “fracas” or “kerfuffle” were uttered while Anderson storyboarded his version of the pivotal bathtub sequence, I can assure you the gangbangers here spend more time arguing whether Smiley’s cousin’s wallet is a shade of fuscia or Amaranth than they do debating the fate of the bloodied (not from a beating, mind you; he slips while stepping into the gangbangers’ clawfoot tub during one of Anderson’s patent slow-motion walking camera shots) Hoyt. At one point, Hoyt even weighs in on the subject, but his claim that the wallet is an obscure shade of Bohemia Mauve seems to anger the gangsters more than does his assault–by way of a “rock, scissors, paper” challenge–on their leader, Smiley… who, in this version, is so-named not because he never smiles, but because he wears a tragedy/comedy mask that has only the comedy face on both sides.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
My first red flag was raised at the very onset of the film, right along with Anderson’s trademark red curtain. Whereas the original gradually uncovered the backstory of the Russian mobster killed by Alonzo, Anderson places the backstory front and center in a pre-credit sequence. He also changes the Russian to a walrus-mustachioed Mexican bandit, and inexplicably places the action in 1851. This sequence, as well as all of the other film’s gun battles, involves antique Portuguese muskets, which I wouldn’t have known had the film’s pantaloon-attired gangangers not explained the superiority of the Portuguese model’s craftsmanship over its inferior Spanish counterpart. I might have assumed that Anderson was speaking to Mexican nationalism, but when I expressed my confusion to the reviewer sitting to my left, while simultaneously pointing out that California was no longer in Mexican hands by 1851, he glared at me as if to say “Dammit, it’s Wes Anderson! His genius can’t be sullied by pedestrian matters such as historical accuracy, or even adjacency!” I made note of the New Yorker magazine credential pinned to his ascot and turned my eyes back to the screen.
Soon after, we’re in the thick of the action, where Hoyt is being driven through the streets of South LA by Alonzo in his vintage Model T. Now I’m as big a fan of Sir Ian McKellan’s as anyone, but Denzel Washington’s portrayal of Alonzo probably would have required a performer whose greatest display of dramatic tyranny (as Richard III) was from this century, let alone millenium. McKellan’s unsuitability for the role becomes all the more glaring when, in lieu of the rap soundtrack and the “howl like a wolf” speech, he instead hums Berthe Sylva’s “Les Roses Blanches” and implores Hoyt to “embrace the spirit of the Auslandreich Wolfen.” Anderson stalwart Jason Schwartzman as Hoyt isn’t the worst bit of casting, but Anderson turns him from a star high school football player into the champion of the 1936 Michigan Upper Peninsula Kazoo/Tiddlywinks Invitational. I wondered out loud how a modern-day task force cop could have been champion of anything in 1936, but the loud sighs from my cohorts in the dark reminded me to keep any would-be objections to an internal dull roar.
The film only continues to grow more confusing from this point on. Any tension in the scene where Hoyt takes down the two would-be rapists is dissipated by the forgoing of crack as their drug of choice in favor of Grand Marnier, a flask of which they toss back and forth while playing what looks like a game of “Ring Around The Rosie” with their would-be victim. Macy Grey’s memorable turn as the burglarized homeowner is now a wordless exchange between Alonzo and Frances McDormand as a local artist who turns mural graffiti into mime and lives in an art deco hotel overlooking MacArthur Park. The park is notably absent of vagrants, but the scene does offer up a version of the original’s gunfire-fueled getaway, as Anderson ramps up the tension (not to mention the verite) by having a coterie of lake-touring gondoliers come to McDormand’s would-be rescue, all the while singing an NWA medley patter-style a la Gilbert and Sullivan. And I’ll grant that the scene with the Three Wise Men cop elders was a bit muted in the original, but not so much so that it warranted beat-by-beat narration by an onscreen Adrien Brody… who, despite the scene taking place in LA’s calorically vaunted Pacific Dining Car, looks only marginally better-fed here than he did in The Pianist.
I checked my watch; we were only ten minutes from the film’s finale, and there was still no sense of the original’s foul-smelling onion of corruption whose layers were gradually peeled away. No Scott Glenn playing Alonzo’s corrosive mentor, no cameos by the likes of Dr. Dre or Snoop Dogg (or hey–even his Jah-loving Snoop Lion alter ego with a hat Pharrell would envy would have been okay). I turned to the critic to my right and asked him if I was the only one confused by Alonzo’s motivation, by the film’s anachronisms, by the fact that inner city Los Angeles had been transformed into an amalgam of whimsical villages and burgs, but was met by a contemptuous glare. “Did you not register the magisterial drapery in that last scene?” he hissed. Or maybe it was something else, but he definitely hissed at me. I made note of his New York Review of Books press pass and decided to keep my mouth shut for the rest of the screening.
And then–BAM! I don’t mean to evoke the sound of a firearm; those Portuguese muskets that had so quaintly been waved about might as well have been circus props at this point. But the finale was upon us, and therein were my cohorts and I treated to the first actual twist ending of Anderson’s career: the “training” of the film’s title was, in fact, a day’s worth of preparation for that night’s Policeman’s Ball! See, Alonzo’s original partner (played by Bill Murray in a flashback) had been in a nasty fencing accident earlier in the afternoon and had sprained his larynx, courtesy of an errant epee. As it turned out, Hoyt was being groomed all along to be his replacement. And Hoyt, fed up with Alonzo’s grandstanding, preening, and arcane references… accepted, and was gangbusters (the first time, I’m pretty sure, the word “gang” was used in the film) in the role.
As the red curtain–a callback to the original visual that had now gone from figurative to literal–fell, the critics around me jumped to their feet and applauded. One or two even wept at Anderson’s transformation of such a grungy, sordid tale into an opus that celebrated the triumph of the human spirit and brown, tan, and red compositonal flourishes. Rather than engage my companions any further, I skulked out to write my review. After all, the pen is truly mightier than the sword… or, as I now realized, any weapon in the hands of Wes Anderson.
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A graduate of Columbia University and UCLA Film School, David Kukoff has eleven produced film and television credits to his name (including the hit Disney movies “Model Behavior” with Justin Timberlake and Kathie Lee Gifford and “Switching Goals” with the Olsen Twins). In addition to making the front page of Variety for his first spec script sale, he has written for every studio and network in Hollywood, has published two books on film and television writing, and has been the subject of numerous features in Variety, Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, and KCET’s award-winning “Life And Times Tonight.” His first novel, CHILDREN OF THE CANYON, was just released by Rebel ePublishers, and was called “Saroyan-esque” by award winning novelist Dan Fante.