Filmmakers can be sensitive sometimes. David Fincher still won’t talk about Alien 3, a 25-year-old wound by the time he produced Mindhunter, co-starring Holt McCallany (from Alien 3). Maybe on the promotional circuit, McCallany mentions that he first worked with David on Alien 3, and the director has to sit by silently — we apply the Eisenstein montage to his blank face and imagine the inner turmoil. Once a film has been made, it’s printed onto public record, and may follow its filmmaker through their career. I understand via pop culture osmosis that Stephen King wants to be known for The Dark Tower, but everybody talks about The Stand instead. You may not get to choose, as budgets inflate, stakes raise, and the realities of showbiz bear down on creative passersby.
For a quick lesson in movie marketing, we’ll have a look at the Wachowskis, creators of “The Matrix Trilogy.” Now, the Matrix trilogy is a successful movie series, with its second entry becoming the highest-grossing R-rated movie for the next 13 years. If the previous record-holder, Terminator 2, is any indication, Hollywood is compelled by big numbers, and will chase ancient success regardless of a changing audience (Terminator Salvation, Genisys, Dark Fate). How pissed off do you think the Wachowskis’ respective Hollywood people were when it took 18 years for the next Matrix sequel, and the two writer/directors spent that time on very expensive, very unprofitable movies like Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending? As a kind of caveat, all of those movies will at least remind the audience via trailer that “The Matrix Trilogy” was once a thing, no matter how infamous Reloaded and Revolutions were, and no matter how much time has passed since.
We start with their directorial follow-up to The Matrix Revolutions, Speed Racer, in 2008.
Speed Racer is holy ground among some, especially old-school anime fans, but it tanked. According to Box Office Mojo, it made $93.9 million against a $120 million budget. So what do you think, is the next film introduced by “From the directors of Speed Racer and The Matrix Trilogy”?
Nope! Clean slate. Thus is the game, notwithstanding the establishment of “creators” in an otherwise strict framework. As an aside, I get the sense it’s less compelling to say “From the producers of…” and especially “From the writers of…” so I don’t know why we have “creators” here instead of “directors,” which is just as true. Regardless, that next film is Cloud Atlas, which made $130.5 million against an estimate that peaks at $146.7 million. I assume the budget is an estimate because the Wachowskis scraped that number together from a dozen sources, most of them European, even fronting $7 million of their own money to produce a passion project. It’s evident in the later testimonies of the stars and on the screen itself — this is a labor of love.
I don’t, however, know where Jupiter Ascending comes from. The point is, Cloud Atlas was not notable enough, financially, to be mentioned, and by the time Jupiter Ascending does $183.9 million against a potentially $200 million budget — holy shit — well, the trailer for The Matrix Resurrections simply states “From Director Lana Wachowski.” Fair enough, they’ve split for this one, but there’s nothing in either career to reference that wouldn’t harm audience interest or be redundant.
For our part as the audience, we saw “From the Creators of The Matrix Trilogy” at least three times, not counting Wachowski-produced fare like V for Vendetta. Does that mean the Wachowskis are failures? As someone who loved Cloud Atlas and at least enjoyed Jupiter Ascending, of course not. But I’m not Hollywood. Who knows why the Matrix franchise is being resurrected, so to speak, why it’s occupying precious blocks on Lana’s schedule which could otherwise be filled by an infinity of other things, knowing her track record.
Credentials in the movie trailer or on the poster are my favorite part, because it’s a window into the marketing un-mind that determines which of the filmmakers’ past successes to associate with the new work, no matter how unrelated. Imagine the impossible situation for the team behind 2019’s The Gentlemen, who often told us the movie was “directed by Guy Ritchie.” Who’s Guy Ritchie? They said nothing else on the matter, because his successful movies were nothing like The Gentlemen (Sherlock Holmes, Aladdin, Sherlock Holmes 2), but the marketing narrative is that of a return to form, to movies largely beyond the mainstream (Snatch, RocknRolla). I also wonder about who is granted this “director” status by Joe from Marketing. Why is the movie Trainwreck “From the Guy Who Brought You Bridesmaids” (emphasis mine — casual language for a comedy film) but 2020’s Monster Hunter is simply “Milla Jovovich”? I think about this a lot, and while I don’t know where the interest comes from, I might point to Antoine Fuqua and David Ayer. The Wachowskis, Guy Ritchie, Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Black Hawk Down) — nobody beats the 20-year epic that is “From the Writer or Director of Training Day.”
Training Day (2001)
Our story begins with Training Day, which we might call a “sleeper.” It made $104.9 million off a $45 million budget, back in the day when that was a non-laughable price-tag for American movies. The film also saw Denzel Washington win the Best Actor Oscar, and Ethan Hawke was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. At this time, director Antoine Fuqua had made The Replacement Killers, a John Woo-style actioner with Chow Yun Fat himself, and something called Bait with Jamie Foxx. I’d never even heard of that one, so no doubt it’s up to Denzel to sell this movie. Ethan Hawke isn’t even paying attention.
The Fast and the Furious (2001)
The film’s writer David Ayer had a busy year between the release of Training Day and the original Fast and the Furious, though what I understand of screenwriting tells me these two scripts were in development for years, probably not in parallel. Ayer is a co-writer on The Fast and the Furious, and while it was closer in theme to Training Day than to whatever Fast and Furious sequel has just come out at the time you’re reading this, it doesn’t add up to requiring our famous two words on the poster or in the trailer. As a result, as you can see, I decided to show you one of my favorite artifacts from a bygone era, available now on eBay.
Dark Blue (2002)
Ayer’s next project was a Kurt Russel and Ving Rhames-starrer I’d never heard of, which apparently makes me “mad.” The above image is a DVD cover, but the theatrical posters, which are far bluer, make no mention of “writers.” Still, this cop thriller is very much in Ayer’s genre wheelhouse.
Tears of the Sun (2003)
Fuqua’s follow-up to Training Day comes in the perhaps surprising form of Tears of the Sun, which definitely came out in 2003 because it stars Bruce Willis, Monica Bellucci, and Cole Hauser. It’s an action thriller about Navy SEALs almost a decade before their popularization in Hollywood. In the old days, they were still among the soldiers and SWAT guys murdered en masse by superheroes like Blade or the Brotherhood of Mutants. This was indeed the era of the blockbuster, one of them anyway, and perhaps as a result, Tears of the Sun underperformed despite mostly positive reception.
Speaking of the SWAT team, this brings us to Ayer’s next job, co-writing an adaptation of a TV show about the SWAT team also called S.W.A.T. You might see some familiar names on this poster if you’re into crime thrillers, like Clark Johnson and Neal H. Moritz, who mostly come from TV. I’m only surprised I don’t see Shawn Ryan, though he’d go on to produce the next adaptation of S.W.A.T., the oddly liberal-leaning CBS show. This one was a massive success, sporting considerable star power for the era, like Jackson and Rodriguez and LL Cool J, and thus apparently didn’t need Training Day. Of course, it might not yet be in vogue to advertise with “From the writer of…” unless that writer is a super household name. Like JRR Tolkien.
King Arthur (2004)
Oh, I wanted desperately for this poster to feature Training Day, but this will be the last one in our count that doesn’t (for ten years). It’s King Arthur, a hard left turn for Antoine Fuqua from contemporary thrillers into historical epic, something of a trend after the imagery in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Remember the big battles of Troy, Alexander, and Kingdom of Heaven? I seem to recall a lot of ladders on castle walls. This is the limit, perhaps, because truly Training Day has nothing to do with Arthurian legend. I might consider it Conradian, a cross-cultural descent into darkness, but not Lovecraftian or Orwellian, either. We’ve had to resort to producer credits, invoking other big-time blockbusters like Pearl Harbor and Pirates of the Caribbean. What a terrible time in American cinema.
As of this writing, the Wikipedia article for King Arthur (2004) provides some behind-the-scenes with Fuqua himself, if you’re wondering why he’d take on a project like this. I don’t know still, but he does testify that Disney interfered with his process. “I started out making the movie I wanted, but that was before [Disney] started to police me.” Apparently, they had issues with the level of violence. “I mean, it’s set in the Dark Ages, when people were inconsiderate and decided to bleed everywhere.” King Arthur also has a bloodier unrated director’s cut on DVD, but the PG-13 rating for the theatrical release ensured it was a moderate financial success. (Perhaps — doubled a high budget, which may not cover the, uh, inflated marketing).
The Wikipedia entry has a separate tab for “Marketing,” for the note that the US theatrical film poster enlarged Keira Knightley’s breasts, which naturally upset her. For you math-heads out there, she was 18 when King Arthur was filmed.
Harsh Times (2005)
Not “From the writer of S.W.A.T.” but the “Creator of Training Day.” Wow — creator, huh? This is what I was talking about, the allergy to “writer.” If it can be avoided, so it shall, as it has been here. Honestly, it’s refreshing that a screenwriter is considered the originator of a film, because that’s certainly true of spec scripts, and yet, the director gets all the credit. However, I know that Fuqua had a lot of creative input on Training Day, aside from his directing duties, but let’s witness a rising star with Harsh Times, Ayer’s first time in the chair. Despite starring Christian Bale the year after Batman Begins, this is a very modestly-budgeted flick at $2 million, and it made $6 million. That sounds like enough for a $20 million budget next time, kiddo.
I don’t know why they’re trying to hide it this time, in the darkness of Mark Wahlberg’s butt. Fuqua takes a reduced budget this time, $61 million, and fills his movie with enough violence that it sicked out critics. Shooter came out at a time when I feel like a lot of guy movies were being produced, like The Departed and 300. I thought that at the time because I wanted to see all of them, but never got around to this one. These days, I can’t stand Mark Wahlberg. He’s such a weird guy and his burger restaurant has shit onion rings.
Street Kings (2008)
Label me shocked that the theatrical posters for Street Kings don’t make use of Training Day. This is Ayer’s next directorial effort, wherein Korean-American gangbangers call Keanu Reeves a “white boy” in the opening scene and the Quicks isn’t quick enough. It’s also basically The Shield: The Movie, or Street Kings: A The Shield Story in modern parlance, so you’d think “Viewers interested in X would indeed be interested in Y,” as Training Day is also about corrupt cops. However, the DVD cover makes up for it — but who wore it best?
And from the future screenwriter of Serenity (2019).
Brooklyn’s Finest (2009)
Shooter probably underperformed, taking in $95.7 million, and maybe that explains the further shrinkage with Brooklyn’s Finest, produced at a cost of $17 million. I don’t usually track director’s filmographies like this, but isn’t this is a ping-pong of big-budget and low-budget? And it doesn’t always feel like, for example, Bong Joon-ho taking his blockbuster successes and going small-scale with Parasite. But I don’t know that for sure. If this was Hollywood Jail, Fuqua turned a profit. Enough to catapult him back into the blockbusters, but not enough that we’ll ever hear from Brooklyn’s Finest again.
End of Watch (2012)
Nobody gives a shit about Street Kings, though I thought it was enjoyable. End of Watch plows right ahead with Training Day, now more than ten years later. However, this is where Ayer hops off the train — nearly; he’s half on, half off, bisected by a pole — because, of course, End of Watch was big business. And you know what? It’s another pretty good flick. Perhaps unfairly forgotten when we tally up Jakey G.’s incredible decade between things like Nightcrawler and Prisoners, Nocturnal Animals, etc., etc.
But doesn’t it aspire to those artistic heights? End of Watch opened at TIFF and got a perfect score from good ol’ Roger Ebert. You can also consider it in a running canon with the Bigelow/Boal movies The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, for taking some unfamiliar jargon and making it a movie title. With an 85% Rotten Tomatoes rating, this one multiplied its $7 million budget several times over.
Olympus Has Fallen (2013)
Ayer’s back, baby, but so is Fuqua, turning in one of his most successful movies, Olympus Has Fallen. This is one I could not finish watching because it was so painful, but it did spawn at least three sequels. Where were we in 2013? It was Hollywood post-MCU, and Gerard Butler post-career-doldrums. I don’t know that any of these guys on the poster would’ve been enough to sell a movie at that time, but the imagery does recall the very successful Independence Day, and everyone loves a good “America under attack” story, because as difficult as the early phases are, you know we come back hard.
Sabotage, the first of three movies between the two filmmakers to come out in 2014, is important here, now adding End of Watch to the poster. Training Day has by no means been replaced, though you’d think it ought to be. Not only is End of Watch enough to promote another cop thriller, this one starring Arnold Schwarzenegger no less, but saying “From the writer of Training Day” and “the director of End of Watch” makes it sound like two different people. Then again, how would you communicate it was one person with such limited space?
This poster is also the starting point for the David Ayer aesthetic, I think. Desaturated people and background, bold text, tattoos.
The Equalizer (2014)
No-brainer here. This is the first reunion of Denzel and the director who won him an Oscar, though it’s honestly something of a departure for both. Critics considered The Equalizer in the vein of Taken, the aging actor doing the action badass role. However, in spite of Fuqua’s characteristic R-rated bloodlust, this movie comes out pretty sanitized in the gore department, and not just because the original John Wick released a month later.
But wasn’t Olympus Has Fallen significant enough to be an “on-the-poster” kind of guy? Maybe, but again, you have to mention Training Day here.
War movies are its own thing, alright? Despite being enormous financial gambles, they continue to be produced in parallel with other Hollywood fare like the goblin underground from fantasy books. People who watch The Curse of Oak Island will go see these movies, and they probably don’t know what Training Day is.
I have no idea how David Ayer released these two movies in the same year, unless it was a weird Ashes of Time scenario where the Brad Pitt tank movie was so overwhelming that he shot Sabotage on a long break?
Southpaw is another sort of outlier with its own built-in audience, being a sports movie. The American theatrical posters focus more on Jakey, here taking a role vacated by Eminem, much like Matt Damon did with Elysium. Bald-ish white guy character? It was probably Eminem at one point. However, some of the European posters mention Training Day, The Equalizer — and Kurt Sutter? They don’t say Sons of Anarchy, but he’s on there. Maybe things are changing in the moviescape, where suddenly it’s cool to start talking about writers. Not Nic Pizzolatto for the upcoming Magnificent Seven, though, whose public appeal had imploded by then.
This was another hit for Fuqua, though it garnered middling reviews, a 60% RT score.
Suicide Squad (2016)
Oh, boy. There are a ton of posters for Ayer’s Suicide Squad, all of which feature garish neon but no mention of Training Day or End of Watch. We’ve entered into a higher echelon of blockbusters, where movies practically market themselves. If you don’t know the saga of the production of Suicide Squad, it’s a real whiz-banger which ended in creative control taken away from our rising star and handed to a movie trailer company. Where does this leave David Ayer’s name? Well, strangely, you don’t often find his or Fuqua’s printed on these posters, which is part of the charm of Training Day‘s marketing legacy. These poster-printers are so obsessed with it they don’t even care who made it. Training Day. Training Day. Training Day. But not here.
The Magnificent Seven (2016)
By 2016, Fuqua also finds himself bisected by pole, with The Equalizer officially joining Training Day at the top of the poster. The Magnificent Seven was an opportunity for Fuqua to harken back to the greats in Kurosawa and Sturges. He’s a student of world cinema, which makes me want to give him credit for providing a solid American role to Byung-hun Lee. Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke are also back. I never actually saw this one, so I don’t know if there was even a knowing nod between them in reference to the good old days. I guess I’m part of the problem when it comes to the film western’s popularity. I’m sorry, but unless your name was Antoine Fuquadici, I’m not gonna watch your western.
This is considered a “moderate success” by the part of Wikipedia that doesn’t need a citation, making $162.4 million against $107 million. RT score? 64%. By this point, as a mere bystander, I was noticing something of a pattern in Fuqua. He makes these big Hollywood movies that come in to that classic “mixed reception.” Is this why we always see Training Day attached to his name?
Training Day (2017)
Well, it was a successful movie remembered enough to inspire that most profound thought in whoever’s responsible for having these thoughts: “Let’s do it again!” If not for the presence of Bill Paxton, in his final role, this CBS police procedural would’ve been drowned out in a sea of uniform television. Just now, I saw an ad for three different “FBI” shows, including “FBI: International.” What the fuck and why? And in fact, it remains mostly a curio, another example of when films were disastrously becoming TV shows, I wager following the unlikely (and bewildering to this author) success of FX’s Fargo. We had Lethal Weapon the TV, The Exorcist the TV, Rush Hour the TV.
The creator of Training Day the TV went on to do a show called Deputy, and the posters for it do not bear “From the creator of Training Day,” but perhaps that joke is cruel.
I mean, shouldn’t I be saving my bitterness for when its best deployed? Look at Joel Edgerton’s face here — did they tell him they were taking the picture? For Christ’s sake, now let’s talk about Orc Cop — wherein I have some bad news, friend. As we can see, Training Day has been substituted for the newer, sexier Suicide Squad, which I do understand. Bright represents a further enshiftening to the David Ayer aesthetic, or at least its communication to an audience, and indeed the movie looks a lot like Suicide Squad. Being a Netflix original, I have no idea how well Bright did or who on Earth watched it.
The Equalizer 2 (2018)
This one is less of a no-brainer, though I suppose it needs to be explained that the director of the first one is returning. I suppose. But if we see this poster, perhaps we’re reminded of the original, in which Training Day also appears. The reminder here seems superfluous — or does it? Maybe it’s better than “The Equalizer 2, from the director of The Equalizer.” You win this round. By this point, of course, we know that Training Day refers to the movie, not the TV show.
I haven’t seen The Equalizer 2 yet, but right now I give it a lot of credit for not going with The Equalizer: Resurrection or The Equalizer: Legacy or some bullshit. I would’ve taken Return of the Equalizer, but no subtitles.
The Tax Collector (2020)
You weren’t ready for this twist, were you? By 2020, Ayer’s been thrust into a new context. YouTubeys have had four years to vivisect Suicide Squad, and the powers that be (the New Gods?) decided the franchise would be subject to a soft reboot like a reverse Justin Timberlake, adding the knowing “The.” James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, not Suicide Squad 2, would release the next year. Perhaps in advance of this bizarre Hollywood-style humiliation, we have to pretend that the original never happened. Is this is a victory for Training Day? I’ll take it.
Mayor of Kingstown (2021)
Can you believe it? Can you believe it? I’d actually started writing this post over a year ago and let it lie simply because I didn’t know where I was going with it. Also, this blog is for Asian cinema and culture, to which Training Day hardly qualifies. I guess it works out, though, as September 2020 wasn’t a nice round anniversary. But honestly, scrolling through Twitter today, I saw an ad for Mayor of Kingstown with the above freeze frame and I knew what I had to do. I can’t believe it. 20 years strong. But the difference this time? “Antoine Fuqua.”
These two filmmakers’ careers have been so intertwined, and yet they never collaborated again. I couldn’t even find a picture of them together. And, you know, it’s not even clear to me whether they collaborated the first time, given the attitude of Hollywood productions toward screenplays. Believe me, I’m not asking them to be friends, but it does seem I’m accidentally asking them to be rivals. The direct comparison of their careers measures one’s rise and fall, as the other is mostly static. Ayer, for a time, came out “on top,” finally removing the yoke of Training Day from his name, only to see it return later. Fuqua, with special exceptions, never had that honor. He’s the Training Day guy, full stop. Well, one of them.
It’s frustrating, then, because this retrospective suddenly inverses when it comes to genre. Ayer made one non-crime thriller (Fury), while Fuqua zigged and zagged. In fact, I’d say Fuqua is an action director at heart. When asked in an interview by Den of Geek about his approach to action in The Equalizer, suddenly his speaking pattern shifts to short and staccato: “I came up with a lot of craziness! I got together with some friends who are professionals. Navy SEALs. Our stunt guy, Keith, he was a Navy SEAL. And there was an MMA guy, a martial arts guy. I got together with some guys who do it every day for a living, and some SAS guys as well.” It’s one of the longest responses he provides in this interview — until Training Day comes up.
With all the screenings and official career retrospectives over the years, it’s clear that Fuqua looks back on that film (mostly) fondly, rather than as that one thing he’ll never escape. He then makes movies in all kinds of genres, with mid-range budgets, and he’s consistent. So what do we learn from this two-man journey? All you need is one to break away. Ayer’s career, visualized as the Indiana Jones red line on the map, suddenly jerks north with End of Watch. They give him a bigger budget, more creative control. Suicide Squad, Bright. But where does this lead? The Suicide Squad, perhaps. At the release of that film, famously undirected by Ayer, Gizmodo ran an article with the headline “Suicide Squad Director David Ayer Has Every Right to Be Upset.” It’s an unfortunate turn, and a glimpse into the complicated drama behind the scenes, as James Gunn’s ascension was the consequence of a Canceling, wasn’t it?
For Fuqua? He’s a filmmaker. He’s not a marketer — probably not the guy who wants “Training Day” conjugated onto his name like he’s a doctor, Dr. Fuqua, TD. It’s a fact of his record, a movie he’s proud of. It only defines him insofar as any of his movies do, which he seems to undertake with equal passion. He hasn’t been handed a major blockbuster like Suicide Squad yet — or maybe he simply hasn’t taken it. If and when he does, it’ll be all him, because we know where he comes from.