Is David Ayer more of a writer than a director? His writing credits include U-571 (once described as the most historically inaccurate film of all time), Training Day (a career high), S.W.A.T. (enjoyable but unmemorable), Harsh Times (great performance by Christian Bale) and End of Watch (his best yet?).
It’s probably unfair to just say he’s a writer. As a director he began his career with Harsh Times, then followed up with Street Kings and now we have End of Watch. It’s clear he plays to his strengths. Many writers get told to write what they know. Ayer grew up in South Central Los Angeles and this comes through in his work. Many of his stories revolve around cops, gangsters, drugs and violence and are all well-observed with a distinctive look and feel.
Fate with a badge and gun
With his latest offering I found myself asking, is Ayer the master of in-car banter? Picking up where Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke left off in Training Day, we now have Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena as two street level LA cops, just trying to do their jobs and make it through the day. Ayer gifts their characters with believable dialogue, which Pena and Gyllenhaal deliver effortlessly with easy chemistry. These guys are brothers in all but blood.
You could call this a buddy cop movie, but Lethal Weapon this aint. It’s a thriller, the tone is gritty, visceral and very real. The banter between the two leads serves to diffuse any tension that builds from a result of the job they do. It also contrasts nicely for the audience. We’re relaxed when the guys are riffing off each other in their patrol car, yet completely on edge when they’re answering 911 calls in gang-ridden neighbourhoods.
Plot-wise, the film starts simply enough, as vehicle for us to become familiar with the lives of the two leads. They then fall foul of a gang that greenlights them for assassination. In terms of methods used, Ayer opted to tell this tale in ‘found footage’ style, with the two cops filming their everyday lives for a documentary. This largely works. You can willingly suspend disbelief, aside from the odd scene where even a hardened LA cop would put away the camera for his own safety. What doesn’t work so well is when the gangsters also seem to have cameras and be filming their activities. There’s a limit guys.
That said, it’s a minor point. Overall, this film lives or dies by its leads and it’s safe to say it’s alive and kicking. Prior to filming, Gyllenhaal and Pena spent months riding around LA with real cops and it shows. Their chemistry drives the film and gets under your skin – you really care about their fate and this builds throughout as the tension ramps up.
Does it beat Training Day?
As an overall experience I would say no. Not much will touch Denzel’s award-winning performance. However, in terms of chemistry between characters, it has to be up there. There was perhaps a worry Ayer was beginning to lose his way – as both writer and director – but this represents a huge return to form.
Indeed, award-winning film critic Roger Ebert gave this four out of four stars last year, naming it as his fourth best film of 2012. That should make it a must-see in anyone’s book.