David Ayer, My New Kinda-Sorta Favorite Director

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Okay, so, for many, David Ayer’s work is not new at all. He’s been around for at least a decade that I’m aware of, and he wrote some of the grittier cop dramas/thrillers that have come around in a long time. And I remember that the first time I watched Training Day, I had this sensation of a sort of dread that loomed the whole time, waiting for what I presumed were going to be shocking outbursts of violence. And that sense of dread is probably because of Ayer’s terse writing combined with the visceral direction of Antoine Fuqua. Fuqua’s direction was key to this for me because he was still shaking some of the stigma that directors in the 90s seemed to have due to their connections to the world of directing music videos and commercials. In this movie, it seemed to me that with Ayer’s words, Fuqua began to develop a more demure tone in his direction, showing maturity as a director.

After I saw Training Day and took notice of all of the  awards it deservedly won, I saw a little cop drama called Dark Blue, which for me reignited a newer respect for Kurt Russell and his ability to become those morally ambiguous characters that he seemed destined to play so well. This movie puzzled me because it was directed by a prolific comedy writer and director, Ron Shelton, who seemed to use the input from both Ayer and James Ellroy to good effect. This movie worked for me on several levels, mainly because of Russell’s cocksure swagger throughout most of the movie, and as he talks shit and shop to his partner, the once tightly woven threads of a confident personality begin to snap and unravel. I could see the beginnings of a genre writer slowly emerging with Ayer.

Now, I still haven’t seen both Harsh Times or Street Kings, both of which I have heard mixed reactions, but they’re on the list. But since it seems that I’m discovering his work as a director recently, work that I wonder why I ever neglected in the first place, I should probably continue to dig further into his filmography. Recently I’ve talked on the podcast of my fondness for one of Ayer’s two 2014 releases, Sabotage, a movie that I had also heard mixed reactions about. This movie hit all the right notes for me: gritty, gory, unapologetic violence in a worlds saturated with shades of ambiguity and mistrust. The sense of brotherhood and fraternity that seemed to have once pervaded the DEA task force, led by Schwarzenegger, fell apart after a heist gone wrong. People who once trusted one another and would die for one another then began to suspect each others’ motives. The suspicions turn ugly when team members begin turning up dead after, and during a technically still active investigation by the DEA into their complicity in the failed heist. There is a fantastic scene where an ambush is told in flashbacks as Schwarzenegger investigates, cutting between the ambush and his present day investigation. The pacing and tension, as well as choreographing a riveting gunfight, help to make this movie one of my favorites of the last few years.

This passed weekend I finally saw Ayer’s 2012 “found footage” feature End of Watch. This is where a tide had turned about his movies, as far as from what people had told me of this movie. So many people whose opinions about movies I trust had either written glorious things about this movie, or straight up told me to my face, “Bro, you gotta check it out.” And as we have well established through my rebuffing of Mike’s movie and gaming recommendations, I can be rather stubborn and hard-headed about what I take a chance on. I usually don’t like to “discover” movies on basic cable channels, but End of Watch was on Spike late at night, so I decided to finally watch it. Man. This movie hit hard, and it hit fast.

In a time when there is a lot of distrust towards law enforcement, this movie brought new insight into the lives and demeanor that cops have. Sure, as Ayer’s past movies have shown, law enforcement is rife for corruption because of the high stress and danger with low pay, but this movie also reminded me that these guys on the street are flawed just like you and I. Their shit stinks, and they don’t mind talking about it. Some cops came from broken homes, some came from regimented military backgrounds, but the one common factor is that they all bleed when shot. They all mourn when they lose. The choice to use mobile camera units was a tricky one, and often I was wondering if some of the scene compositions actually broke the “character” or “wall” of the found footage conceit, but it was so well done that I didn’t even care to wonder if there was a camera man following them around the whole time, or if all of the action was captured by the body cams they wore. The tension and pacing elevated this movie from what could have easily been a shitty redux of previously done cliches, and ultimately gave a sense of reality and gravitas to the job that the men and women who patrol the streets do every day.

David Ayer’s work isn’t groundbreaking, and it isn’t high art. But I’ll be damned if anyone tells me that it isn’t tense or pulsing with nail-biting moments of dread. His movies are far from perfect, but they’re a hell of a ride. Once I see Fury, a movie that was riddled with pre-release hyperbole, I will see if it earns the title of one of the best war movies in the last 30 years.

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