End of Watch
Directed by David Ayer
Screenplay by David Ayer
Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Peña, Anna Kendrick, Natalie Martinez, America Ferrera, Frank Grillo, David Harbour
How long is End of Watch? 109 minutes.
What is End of Watch rated? R for strong violence, some disturbing images, pervasive language including sexual references, and some drug use.
The Street King Rises
End Of Watch is a perfectly serviceable drama. It is also a bait and switch job. Writer/director David Ayer, whose chief preoccupations are Los Angeles street life and the pitfalls of upholding the law, set out to create a different kind of cop movie and succeeded. This means that the ads linking this film to Ayer’s breakout script Training Day are inappropriate. The twisted secrets and perilous standoffs promised in the trailer take up a surprisingly small percentage of the story. Advertising End Of Watch as a movie that takes its sweet time might not sell as many tickets, but it would lead to less grumbling among the fans who showed up strictly for police corruption and crack cocaine.
Officers Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Zavala (Michael Peña) are LA’s finest – a pair of patrol cops who face a sordid and dangerous world with guts and good humor. Zavala has a family, Taylor is looking to build one, and they have forged a solid kinship as partners and brothers in arms. The trouble with a cop drama is that the good guys always have so much to lose, and the most dangerous thing for a peace officer to do, especially in a David Ayer project, is crusade for justice with an untainted soul.
End Of Watch is a good movie, but its most distinctive element is a questionable choice at best. Ayer shot the whole film in the style of found footage – “found footage” being the new standard term for mockumentaries that are not comedies – although the camera obeys its own rules only a fraction of the time. In early scenes, the point of view is limited to patrol car dashboard cams and the video recorders that everyone in South Central Los Angeles unaccountably totes around at all times. In an age where everyone records and then shares absolutely everything on the internet, it may not be so far-fetched for a police officer to document his own self-compromising methods on the job, or for a gang member to tape clandestine meetings and drive-bys. Still, it rings false in dramatic context. The canted angles and shaky close-ups are consistent throughout, but once the camera begins cutting to impossible perspectives, the super-handheld effect simply becomes a style choice that the director need not have tried to justify within the narrative.
Rather than revisit the tangled plotting and operatic lunacy of Training Day or Street Kings, End Of Watch opts for the carefully contrived naturalism of a fake documentary. The story, such as it is, emphasizes the more wholesome and upbeat aspects of patrol work, even in the face of some very grim human behavior. This leaves no room for a wild, electrifying Denzel Washington character, or even an unhinged Keanu Reeves. Taylor and Zavala are pranksters, but the kind of mavericks that operate safely within the good graces of their superiors. Down at the core they are loyal, courageous police officers, and distinguish themselves in a series of increasingly dire encounters with the criminal element of South Central.
This movie has an unconventional structure, which meanders in and out of mild pacing problems, especially in the first half. In retrospect, all the downtime and banter between Taylor and Zavala establishes why we should care about them, and raises the stakes of their daily risk for the sake of dramatic payoff. However, it also limits the amount of time spent in active, thrilling, and cinematically gratifying police work. For some time, the movie appears to be a loosely linked series of vignettes, like an episode of Cops dressed up with professional touches such as a script and proper actors. Slowly, it all falls into place as dark foreshadowing and a slow spiral into frightening realities about the pursuit of justice in a hopelessly corrupt world.
Early on, an uptight and embittered fellow officer (David Harbour) warns Taylor and Zavala that in time, the police force will always betray its heroes (only he doesn’t say “betray”). They shrug this prophecy off, and no matter what the streets throw at them, they provide one another with the strength, compassion, and determination to face it.
In the End Of Watch world, every routine police response is almost certain to have a disturbing twist. As Taylor and Zavala pursue hunches and uncover ghastly crime scenes, hints surface that one day they will probe the wrong people too deeply. A roving gang of drive-by shooters has been terrorizing the area, and a collision course with our heroes seems inevitable. This dark intersection of destiny operates in the background throughout the film, as we come to learn everything these two officers have to live for, and for whom they would lay down their lives. The film’s main crime story portions itself out in pieces and snapshots, and even when things head south into a harrowing climax, the nature and scale of the problem remain veiled in mystery. End Of Watch is no neat package, but it would have suffered from any attempts to make it so.
Gyllenhaal and Peña have a convincing onscreen rapport, and they provide the film’s light moments with plenty of heart and humor. The supporting cast, including America Ferrera, Natalie Martinez, Frank Grillo and Anna Kendrick, do their jobs just fine but have minimal character development within which to operate. Only Maurice Compte, playing a villainous hood called Big Evil, gets to expend some raw energy. This is first and foremost a movie about two guys doing a tough job in a hostile environment. It offers plenty of engaging dialogue, some heavy emotional notes, and more than one heart-pounding confrontation.
Many cruel and upsetting things are going on in End Of Watch, and sadly they are the kinds of things that people actually do to one another. However, the film provides only glimpses rather than wallow in depravity or horror. Measured doses of appalling crime provide just enough detail to show how much the work of honest police is worth, and yet how strongly the numbers are often stacked against them.