David Ayer seemed to be a great fit for Suicide Squad from the jump. His grounded eye for action and willingness to embellish the unremarkable would be a welcome change for the superhero movie; and what better time to bring on Ayer’s sensibilities than a superhero movie about super villains? The only surprise surrounding Ayer’s involvement, then, was Suicide Squad‘s PG-13 rating.
DC and Warner Bros. (and Zack Snyder especially), have been aching – ACHING – to release an R-rated comicverse flick in the theater. They came ever so close with Batman v Superman, settling instead for a super deluxe DVD. If David Ayer can’t get an R-rating, nobody can. This is a visceral action filmmaker, one of the throwbacks to an action genre that seemed long gone before his (and, let us not exclude Joe Carnahan’s) blood-soaked tales of cops and crooks and working-class warriors took us back. Ayer’s action sensibilities belong to the school of Die Hard, not Live Free or Die Hard.
Which is funny, since Ayer’s breakout was the screenplay for The Fast and The Furious in 2001. Of course, that original film looks and feels like a relic of a reality long absent from the mega-franchise. Ayer had written the clumsily-executed submarine thriller U-571 the year before The Fast and The Furious, but it was Fall 2001 where his voice began to take shape. It was Training Day, a grimy street-level story about corrupt cops putting together a precision-like heist, with the help of a clueless, honest newbie to the plainclothes game.
Training Day earned Denzel Washington his Best Actor Oscar, and Ethan Hawke his first nomination. Both deserved. Ayer produced two more cops and bad cops screenplays, Dark Blue and S.W.A.T. (underrated), before finally getting his opportunity to direct. When he had his chance, he did direct another Los Angeles crime drama centering around The Force, but Harsh Times was its own animal through and through. This was Christian Bale, the new Batman for God’s sake, playing a lowlife Iraq war vet with dreams of getting a job with the LAPD, but too caught up with drinking and smoking pot and being a general miscreant on a daily basis to have a legitimate chance.
Harsh Times is a wildly unique film from top to bottom. It follows no direct path from beginning to end, and the detours in the film – from Bale’s romantic detour into Mexico, to the trouble he causes his friend, Mike (Freddy Rodriguez), at home – give it a sort of stop-and-start pacing. Not entirely successful, but inventive and never dull, Harsh Times was an interesting directorial start for the screenwriter who’d told, up to this point, rather standard but mostly terrific tales of cops and corruption. It subverted those archetypes he’d so sharply drawn in Training Day and Dark Blue, putting his characters on the outside looking in.
His next film, another riff on Training Day, is the only one in his catalogue he hasn’t written. Based on a screenplay by legendary crime novelist James Ellroy, Street Kings would be a slight step backward for Ayer; mostly because of the woeful miscasting of Keanu Reeves in the title role. It would be another four years before Ayer would direct again, and the result was End of Watch, one of the greatest police procedural thrillers of the 21st century.
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña, End of Watch begins as a day-to-day, patrol beat cop drama. But, in typical David Ayer fashion, the plot thickens once these two officers, two best friends, stumble across a cartel’s operations and discover they’ve been marked for assassination. With a plot like this, it would have been easy for End of Watch to spin out of control, but Ayer goes with the documentary style. It keeps even the more outlandish plot points in check, and it makes certain all the bullets fired throughout the story are honest and felt. It is a success from top to bottom.
Ayer followed up End of Watch with a somewhat underrated film in the quiet comeback filmography of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sabotage. Later that year, he would take his talents to the war torn European countryside. Fury is a story about the journey of a tank platoon in World War II. Brad Pitt led an impressive cast, and Fury is a film whose brutality threatens, at times, to undermine Ayer’s storytelling. This is a violent film, unflinching, and for an obvious reason. But it creeps up ever-so-closely to that line of what is gritty realism and what is exploitative shock value.
Overall, Fury is a solid war picture, and proof that Ayer can step away from his comfort zone of LAPD corruption. And so in 2015 his collection of gritty action, reminiscent of a bygone era, landed him his biggest filmmaking task to date. Suicide Squad is not only David Ayer’s film, it’s part of an entire universe. There is a responsibility for Ayer to not only direct his film, but to keep it in the family. But it also has to be a unique experience; it shouldn’t be anything this terrific action director can’t handle.
Here’s hoping Suicide Squad is better than Jared Leto’s garbage marketing campaign.