I’m not sure who decided that writer-director David Ayer should be the unofficial mouthpiece of the Los Angeles Police Dept., but with Dark Blue, Harsh Times, Street Kings, and Training Day under his belt, it looks like he’s found something he enjoys doing and he’s sticking to it. Some might throw the dreaded “one trick pony” accusation around, but if End of Watch, his latest journey into the unforgiving world of cops in the City of Angels is anything to go by, this is one talented pony whose trick just keeps getting better and better.
In a nutshell, End of Watch is the story of L.A.P.D. partners and best friends Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhall) and Miguel Zavala (Michael Pena), and how they go about working the most dangerous beat in LA, South Central.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is actually it.
Yes, there may be a few more details like how Taylor is documenting their shifts on a video camera for a project he’s working on or how there’s a South American drug cartel up to some shady business in their neighbourhood, but essentially the film’s plot is literally just “cops on the beat”. And therein lies the film’s brilliance.
Despite what Michael Bay and his friends in Hollywood would have you believe, real life police officers are not superhero, super-sleuthing, walking weapons of mass destruction who explode their way across a city, breaking up world threatening conspiracies along the way. And so too with Taylor and Zavala, average Joes who spend most of the film merely cooped up together in their patrol car, doing their rounds and responding to calls, all the while ragging on each other like only the best of friends can.
It’s a testament to the amazingly natural and nuanced performances of both Gyllenhall and Pena – arguably the best work of their careers – that they turn these talking head scenes into a joy to watch. The palpable charisma, chemistry and camaraderie that they share ensures that the endless, often hilarious banter feels completely honest and raw (and at times quite improvisational). Even when their days take unexpected twists of the most vicious violence and life threatening calamity – as the unpredictable lives of cops are wont to do – it all still feels very authentic, right down to the heavy emotional price sometimes paid by these cops for doing this most dangerous and thankless of jobs.
That authenticity and emotion is carried through to their personal lives, helped by immensely charming and believable support performances by Anna Kendrick as Janet, the first girl the usually romantically aloof Taylor may be truly serious about, and Natalie Martinez as Gabby, Zavala’s high school sweetheart turned wife with whom he’s expecting their first child.
Now yes, Ayer has made use of the dreaded “found footage” style handheld camera, but it’s not all shaky cam so you can put away your motion sickness meds. Ayer essentially cuts back and forth to whatever point of view or camera technique works best for the scene, whether that be a traditional tracking shot from a cameraman, or the handicam in Taylor’s hand as he investigates a crime scene, or the dashboard camera in their patrol car during a car chase, or even the cellphone camera of a gang member during a drive-by shooting. Whatever works, works.
It’s a bold approach, that will probably be the only stumbling block for some on the film. Personally, I liked it and never felt like it was being dragged into Blair Witch territory, even when the action heats up during violent shootouts and car chases (which the action-heads among you will be happy to know that there are more than enough of). And with Ayer’s admittance that sometimes you just need to film it like a traditional movie, the logistics of where that camera actually is be damned, there’s no need to fabricate contrived reasons for why a particular character suddenly has to have a camera glued to their hand.
The term “character driven” often gets thrown around for movies, but End of Watch actually lives up to that description. It is a gritty and emotionally rich slice of life film that will not only give you newfound respect for the actors involved, but also the world they they’re portraying. The camera techniques may put off some, and there is a 3rd act plot development that has to happen to give the film a bit of a climax that may feel a tad bit contrived, but those slights are not enough to truly dent what is easily the best – and most realistic – cop film to come out of Hollywood in years.