End of Watch – Review


Stellar cop movie has grit but no tripod

End of Watch is one of the best police movies in years. That’s not me being hyperbolic, that’s me stating the obvious. Think about it. What have been the most compelling police movies in recent years? If we’re talking as a strict police procedural then you’d have to go back fifteen years to the release of L.A. Confidential. But that was a period drama of the halcyon days of the LAPD in the 1950s. End of Watch shows the daily grind of a pair of street cops working patrol as they serve and protect the citizenry of today’s south LA.

To chronicle the story, writer-director David Ayer switches out traditional filmmaking and instead makes the stylish choice to shoot without a tripod and through the utilization of multiple formats. So if the cop drama has a “found footage” feel this is why. This approach, while a hot trend in the Paranormal Activity series thus far, takes some getting used to. One scene in particular involving a police officer tussling with a suspect inside a small living space is so herky-jerky that it is near impossible to track the action on screen.

Ayer makes sure that the use of handheld cameras is not just his choice to tell the story and acknowledges it at the onset. Officer Brian Taylor is documenting his life on patrol for a film class he’s taking. The digital camera draws ire from the top brass, but Taylor’s commanding officer, Sarge (Frank Grillo), allows him to continue to shoot without consequence. When his handy handheld isn’t in use, we get point-of-view shots from the front window cam of the police cruiser and the traditional third-person perspective. Depending on your tolerance for motion sickness this style of filmmaking could ruin your theater experience.

David Ayer is no stranger to the cop drama. For most of his career in Hollywood, first as a scribe then as a director, he has immersed himself in a cop’s world. His best-known work is his screenplay for Training Day, a film most remembered for Denzel Washington’s turn as a corrupt cop. Ayer has continued the bad cop motif with his films Harsh Times and Street Kings. Now he has added a new chapter for his cop universe: Making cops the good guys. Far too often we’ve been presented officer characters that are shady and corrupt, looking to achieve something extra. The reasons vary depending on the situation, but the dirt that collects on their hands can’t be cleaned off with soap and water alone. Absolution requires greater solvent.

Stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña are officers Taylor and Mike Zavala, partners on the force that merely bend the laws they are sworn to enforce. They work as a collective, not as individuals. One is a loving husband; the other is in a serious relationship. They are as close as brothers and the camaraderie between them strengthens their characters. As the story unfolds, we are a third party watching them on patrol chasing down perps in their cruiser and taking the occasional “welfare call” to build good will with their superiors so they can return to the regular cops and robbers portion of their shift. While Ayer slowly introduces the main plot involving a drug cartel that builds to an action-heavy climax, what really hits home is the humanity of these two men and their commitment to the job and each other.

In telling the story, Ayer meanders around. The film feels like an R-rated extension of the classic police procedural television series Adam-12 with Taylor and Zavala working the beat. Sometimes we see them during the day, other times in the dead of night. In between protecting and serving the citizens of southern Los Angeles, the two tell stories, jokes, anything they can to stay alert after the effects of Red Bull and Monster energy drinks wear off. Meanwhile, outside of police duty, the partners experience individual life changes. Zavala and his wife welcome their first child, while Taylor and girlfriend Janet (Anna Kendrick) see their serious relationship lead to nuptials.

The hairy situations involving the two men has a sense of authenticity, to a point where I would label David Ayer the Joseph Wambaugh of the cop movie. Wambaugh, a former LAPD officer who became an award-winning writer of both fictional and non-fictional cop stories, would transport readers to the squad room (or car) as he detailed the lives of police officers. That is what Ayer has done with End of Watch.

By the time the central plot kicks in and all hell starts to break loose, we have a full understanding of both characters and the risks they take. The final fifteen minutes are very suspenseful leading to a resolution that some viewers may label as a cop out (no pun intended). But considering the subject matter it needed one final moment of levity to leave the audience happy.

Together Gyllenhaal and Pena have a natural chemistry where they joke and kid about their personal affairs but are all business when it’s time to roll. By the time they reach the payoff in the end we are so familiar with their characters that we have a sense of attachment, quietly rooting for them to make it home safe and sound. End of Watch is gritty and real, and a true surprise for the genre. If you can get past the use of hand-held cameras you will witness the best cop drama to come along in quite a while.

Director: David Ayer
Writer: David Ayer
Notable Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Pena, Natalie Martinez, Anna Kendrick, Frank Grillo, David Harbour, America Ferrera

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