I first heard about David Ayer when my family insisted that I not see his film.
This was back in ’01, and the film was a gangland grotesque that was drawing critical buzz like a carcass draws flies, Training Day.
Minor league crime fan that I was, I would have rushed to see a flick my folks damned as crass, bleak and hyper-violent. Anything that wrinkled their noses got mine twitching. But the applause from the reviewers’ ranks turned me off.
Once I got around to it, I’d have kicked myself for waiting that long. Training Day had all the promised nasty and more, with brains and guts to spare. The film satisfied my lust for the grim, while the script starved me for the quality work of its writer, David Ayer.
Enough years had passed that Ayer was back in the spotlight, this time getting panned for going over the top on the gruesome and morally void. Harsh Times, a pre-Dark Knight Christian Bale flick that practically went straight to DVD, had drawn ire, not acclaim, from the critics.
I screened it, I liked it, and Ayer continued to occupy his place as Hades in my internal pantheon of modern noir screenwriters.
Little did I know, there were some sordid turns in Ayer’s cinematic career that I’d missed along the way. Pieces of his résumé were out there on the Best Buy shelves that might have shaped a different vision of the man.
End of Watch opened my eyes to the full career of David Ayer. It’s worth having a look, if only to get a complete picture of a shadowed talent that has had a love-hate relationship with the spotlight.
The previews to End of Watch didn’t earn more than a raised eyebrow out of me, at first glance. Sure, it had good people – Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena – and yeah, it was about a subject I spend the lion’s share of my time writing about, cops on the edge and over their heads in gang turf. But as slick as its cinematography looked, as solid as its cast was, it lacked anything to set it apart from the flock of cop films that trudge by every year.
Then I learned by way of scuttlebutt that “the writer of Training Day” had his name up in lights on it.
Flashbacks to uncomfortable moments viewing Harsh Times and Training Day fired me up to catch End of Watch as soon as it came out. I’m not one for opening weekends, but I had my calendar marked.
When another trailer came out, confusion coupled with my compulsion: David Ayer wasn’t just being billed as the writer of Training Day, but of The Fast and the Furious, too.
It was then that I realized that as much of a dedicated fan as I figured I was, I hadn’t explored Ayer’s work yet. What’s more, there was a chance I wouldn’t like it.
Easy as it would be to claim that The Fast and the Furious was without merit, I admit to enjoying it. But I admit to enjoying Number 2 Value Meals at McDonald’s; it doesn’t make them good eating. And The Fast and the Furious can’t be regarded as top-quality cinema. It’s a hyperthyroidal mess with a goony plot and a train of insipid sequels. Watching it may be good, depending on your mood, but it’s not good for you.
Discovering Ayer’s fingerprints on that mercenary muscle-fest made me delve into his filmography online. I found black smudges all the way through.
As much of a shock as it was to find he’d written The Fast and the Furious, finding out that he’d been involved in a submarine thriller was even weirder. U-571 was, as I’ve noted in other reviews, put together well, but it was hardly solid gold. Ayer caught righteous flack for twisting history so that the story was suitable for American audiences.
Compromise for a shot at commercial success didn’t end there. Only two years out from Training Day‘s Oscar win, Ayer put in S.W.A.T., a reheated movie version of the 1975 TV show. It was just as tepid and dollar-driven as it sounds. The standard action vehicle with stock tough guy, Samuel L. Jackson, tough gal, Michelle Rodriguez and oh-so-sassy L.L. Cool J, S.W.A.T. stuck Colin Farrell in just to sponge up some top-shelf actor cred. It was more marketing ploy than movie, and was soon forgotten accordingly.
Even more forgettable were Ayer’s films with a living legend of crime writing. James Ellroy and Ayer teamed up twice for predictably dark movies about over-the-brink LAPD. You’d think that a compound of mean genius like that could only result in high explosive. Dark Blue and Street Kings turned out to be duds, though. I only know them as titles I’ve scanned past on Netflix, consigned to the drab rank-and-file with sour Rotten Tomatoes ratings.
Sum it all up, and I approached End of Watch with a jaundiced eye. The image of Ayer as an uncompromising auteur of crooked-cop cinema had been tarnished, adulterated and sunk into the commercial mire of a standard Hollywood career.
From a few scenes in, End of Watch restored any and all dark luster Ayer had. Strike that – it elevated him. His course through Tinseltown may have been crooked, but his talents have been honed for it.
I could sing this grim film’s praises for an entire other article, but I’ll spare you. I just insist you see it. Because End of Watch is better than the raw-knuckled cop fare that Ayer has presented before, and that’s saying something.
What it says, specifically, is that Ayer has arrived as a completely capable screenwriter. There’s not a filmgoer I know who would fail to appreciate End of Watch, given the scrupulous control Ayer exercises over its emotional tone.
It may be brutal as the most masochistic movie audience could want. But it’s as funny, clever and heartwarming as any romantic comedy this side of Bridesmaids.
Ayers’ history may be checkered, but arriving at End of Watch is an epic destination for a screenwriter.