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'Harsh Times' on Netflix: David Ayer Is the King of Ride Alongs

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Sep 23, 2012 | 5:56am EDT

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Harsh Times

Flip on your television in the middle of any given weekday, if you are so occupationally liberated, and you’ll notice no shortage of reruns of the show Cops. Why is that? What captivates us about a long-dead reality show more meme-worthy than it is relevant? It’s the idea of riding along with someone in a dangerous occupation. This vicarious experiential aspect of police work is at the core of what we love about Cops, even if we won’t always admit it. That element is artfully reflected in the career of David Ayer; the king of the filmic ride-along.

This week will see the release of Ayer’s latest police drama End of Watch. There are several directors who continually work within certain tropes, but as writer and director, Ayer’s mastery of the gritty cop flick is astonishing. His modus operandi often involves a couplet of characters either directly or indirectly involved in law enforcement. As is the case with many movies, the audience accompanies the characters on a journey. However in Ayer’s movies, that journey is conveyed far more literally.

This creative fingerprint can be seen all throughout his career. In Training Day for example, for which he penned the script, nearly the entirety of the film is contained within Denzel Washington’s souped-up, unmarked cop car. But simply setting movies within the confines of a motor vehicle does not nuance make. What’s interesting about the works of David Ayer is that he uses the ride-along as a thread that runs through nearly every facet of the law enforcement experience, granting us insight into some of the most dangerous and ugly aspects of the profession.

Going back to Training Day, we get to see a rookie and a seasoned, but ultimately corrupt veteran approaching the critical junctures of their careers at high speed from different directions; the careers are also representative of their lives in both subtextual and substantially overt ways. End of Watch on the other hand depicts a well-established partnership between two of the admittedly most upright and honest cops Ayer has ever constructed. Still, the events of that 109-minute ride-along expose these characters to the darkest trials of their careers and their lives.

That ride-along is not simply a convenient device for moving the plot forward, though it accomplishes that as well. Again, that would not speak highly of Ayer as a storyteller. Centering these films on an honest-to-goodness trip allows for the communication of a more defined yet digestible character arc. What is fascinating about his films is that though the journey on which he sets his characters moves in a lateral direction, they are almost always downward spirals.

Take for example his 2005 film Harsh Times. The plot revolves around a pair of friends who are cruising around L.A. and getting into various degrees of mischief. Mike (Freddy Rodriguez) is a decent enough guy trying to achieve gainful employment and live happily ever after with his wife. His buddy Mike (Christain Bale), on the other hand, is a former Army Ranger whose psychological, shall we say, quirks threaten both their lives. His increasingly more aggressive actions set him on one of the most explosive paths of destruction ever filmed. Here again, we have a ride-along and the exploration of a gritty, crime-laden story arcs. But Harsh Times examines a decidedly diffent angle of law enforcement.

Mike’s propensity toward violence, something that has actually typified the police officers in Ayer’s past films, precludes his acceptance to the LAPD. He’s a character right on the doorstep of a law enforcement career who is desperate to pin a badge to his chest. Is his desire bred of a need to serve and protect? Far from it. In fact, he’s looking to join the force to somehow legitimize his violent outbursts. As Ayer delves deeper and deeper into Mike’s psyche, we begin to see that Harsh Times is far and away the heaviest and most emotionally jarring of his career. And again, he uses the events that occur while the audience is riding shotgun with the characters to convey this.

It’s a strange title for any filmmaker to hold, but Ayer’s reign as the king of the ride-along began long ago and continues through End of Watch. It’s a bizarre form of irony that he uses such a modern instrument, a contemporary means of transportation, to dig into the most primal elements of humanity. More specifically, of manhood…and even more specifically of the men in blue. Harsh Times is now available on Netflix’s Watch Instantly service, if you happen to be down for the ride.

[Photo Credit: MGM]

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