End of Watch (United States, 2012)September 20, 2012
The problem with End of Watch, a gripping police drama, is director David Ayer's stylistic decision to shoot nearly the entire movie tripod-less. Or, to put it another way, there's a whole lotta shakin' going on. Much of End of Watch could almost fall into the so-called "found footage" approach that is a hot trend in horror. Main character Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) is never without his handy digital camera, so we often see events through his lens. On other occasions, we are presented with the point-of-view of a police car front window cam (this may result in motion sickness for some audience members during car chases). And, even when a scene is shot using a more traditional third-person perspective, we're still in hand-held territory. It's an unwarranted distraction that, for some, will curtail the potential to experience and enjoy an otherwise finely written and crafted motion picture.
David Ayer must love cop films. His previous directorial effort, Street Kings, was one, and his best-known work as a screenwriter, Training Day, fit into the same category. This time, however, he's taking a slightly different tact and, instead of telling a tale of police corruption and the men who embrace it, he's going for something a little less Hollywood. The cops are the good guys: hard workers who uphold the law and, occasionally, when demanded by duty, make heroic sacrifices. They love their wives and girlfriends and there's a real sense of camaraderie between them. In addition to a building sense of tension as the narrative moves towards its climax, End of Watch boasts surprising emotional heft. This is as much about the humanity of the people in the police cars as it is about the job they do.
Jake Gyllenhaal, with his skull shaved, and Michael Pena, with a full head of hair, play partners Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala, whose beat is the South Central (L.A.) night shift. Most of what they do is routine: rescuing children from a burning house, investigating a missing persons call, responding to noise complaint. But, because South Central is a hive of drugs and gang violence, there's always an edge of uncertainty. By being too diligent, Brian and Mike attract the wrong sort of attention to go along with medals of valor: a Mexican drug lord wants them stopped before they can interfere with his distribution plans. Meanwhile, both partners experience life changes. Mike and his wife, Gabby (Natalie Martinez), welcome their first child, and Brian considers marriage to his girlfriend, Janet (Anna Kendrick).
For a while, End of Watch progresses almost like an R-rated episode of Adam 12. It's very much a "day in the life of" story, detailing the easy conversation that transpires in a squad car between calls and showing the dangers faced by cops even in seemingly unthreatening situations. There are times when the first-person approach works to emphasize intimacy. On other occasions, such as a fire rescue, it reduces everything into a muddle of confusion.
Eventually, the main plotline kicks in, although we soon realize aspects of it have been present all along. The final 30 minutes are taut and suspenseful and the viewer shouldn't make the mistake of believing events are going to follow a predetermined cop movie path. End of Watch isn't afraid of venturing into dark territory, although the way in which Ayer chooses to conclude the film, with a much-needed "lighter moment," is welcome.
Gyllenhaal and Pena make Brian and Mike ordinary, down-to-earth guys who love each other and their women. The chemistry between them is natural, not forced as is sometimes the case in buddy films. They have the easygoing rapport that comes from long-time familiarity. They talk in shorthand and needle each other mercilessly. When it comes down to it, however, they have each other's backs. Few cop movies spend as much time developing a believable partnership like this, and it has a strong payoff in the final act.
For those who can handle Ayer's overuse of the shaky-cam approach on the big screen, End of Watch is satisfying and emotionally potent. It's a good, gritty drama of the sort that seems increasingly rare within the thriller genre, where visual excess and the adrenaline/testosterone cocktail have become dominant. Even with the distraction caused by the hand-held camera, End of Watch offers two hours well-spent.
End of Watch (United States, 2012)
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Pena, Natalie Martinez, Anna Kendrick, David Harbour, Frank Grillo, America Ferrera, Cody Horn
Screenplay: David Ayer
Cinematography: Roman Vasyanov
Music: David Sardy
U.S. Distributor: Open Road Films