I’m not quite sure why I picked David Ayer’s End of Watch for this month’s Gleaming the Queue. Unlike many, I thought the Ayer’s scripted Training Day was rather pedantic, in spite of Denzel’s Oscar-wining performance, and I could not sit through his S.W.A.T. The film also starred Jake Gyllenhaal, an actor whose post-Donnie Darko work is as inconsistent as a weatherman. But, for whatever reason, I am glad I took Netflix’s recommendation for End of Watch – if only to see a LA cop movie where the cops are actually nobel.
The film covers three months in a patrol car with Officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña). ”I am Fate with a badge and a gun,” Brian declares in the opening voiceover, sounding like the graduate student he is in his scant spare time. With nerve to match his ambition, Brian will walk fearlessly into any strange house and, when he unearths a cache of drugs or money, never considers taking some to finance his education. End of Watch isn’t “The Shield” – these two are actually GOOD Los Angeles patrolman.
Brian’s partner and best friend, Mike, is as expertly comic at imitating Anglo voices as Brian is at speaking Spanglish during their police-car banter, but a homebody who married his high school sweetheart Gabby (Natalie Martinez). Brian, with a history of three-night stands, may have finally found Ms. Right in the perky Janet (Anna Kendrick). All four are the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human beings you’ve ever known in your life, which, for a film about Los Angeles police officers, is jarring in and of itself.
Since the early 1990s, Hollywood’s portrayal of L.A. cops floats the notion that an officer needs to be crazy or corrupt to survive and thrive in a hellish job. End of Watch seems to argue that the boys in blue can have hearts of gold. And just as Brian and Mike are noble, the local Mexican malefactors are monstrous. I checked the credits and the Mexican cartel underlings with whom Brian and Mike battle are named “Demon”, “Wicked”, and “Big Evil”. And just as shitty as these characters’ names, every single gang member is portrayed like a walking stereotype. The only lines the gangsters ever get out are a mouthful of explicits through thick (and barely passable) accents. The film tries oh so very hard to get you to believe that these people are indeed the real thing, but it comes off a little too forceful and really only lop-sides the emotions.
The ethical point of view in End of Watch has its inspirational and novelty value, but the aesthetic POV — the pretense that most of what we see is “found footage” — borders on the ludicrous. Brian justifies his incessant carrying of a camera by saying he’s doing a project for grad school. Viewers at first may sigh and indulge this overused strategy with a conditional eye roll. But Ayer and cinematographer Roman Vasyanov go nuts with the cinemabatics, shattering the visual lexicon of film and replacing it with anarchy.
This works in doses, primarily in the beginning and during most of the action. Scenes are escalated to pure intensity as Brian and Mike shoot their way out of darkly-lit alleyways, with almost no time to check their blind spots or catch a breath. Ayer uses the up-close and fast-paced camera work to his advantage during these moments, because End of Watch at times feels like an airtight adrenaline rush, with thrills around every corner. You never can quite expect what’s to come next and for that I credit Ayer’s choice to shoot on the fly and without caution.
But then the rest of the film comes weighing down. For starters, the film will randomly switch between planted cameras to traditional ones that are invisible to the actors on the screen. It’s a head-scratching move, because it essentially pulls you out of the scene and makes you question the purpose of the “real” cameras opposed to the “fake” ones. Ayer would have been much better off if he chose one or the other and stuck with it. Switching back and forth confuses the presentation and muffles the execution.
Vasyanov & Ayers use wide aerial shots of Los Angeles – an obvious nod to Michael Mann – with breathtaking imagery of sun setting over the sprawling cityscape, only to then thrust the audience back into the crammed police cruiser, or crack house. Perhaps most interesting about the POV use in End of Watch is that it is not only from Brian and Mike’s perspective. At the start of the film, Brian recites all of the weapons he caries daily – showing off his side arm, two mag clips, handcuffs, etc. – to a motionless handheld in his locker. Later in the film, we see the Mexican gangbangers doing to the same – posing with their weapons to a motionless handheld. And although End of Watch is definitely the Brian and Mike story, I could not help but think that the similarity between the two scenes was Ayers’ way of saying that character in the film believes he is its star. Even the title of the film itself plays on the audience’s voyeurism that permeates throughout its 108 minutes. To be honest, I’m not fully sure if Ayers is trying to say more with the POV camera work than to just make a gritty LA cop movie, but there are enough clues throughout End of Watch to make one speculate.
Ultimately, the saving grace of End of Watch is the on screen bond between Brian and Mike. Gyllenhaal and Pena show superb chemistry, and Pena’s performance is especially strong. The two make what could have been a gimmicky buddy cop flick something a little more special, with a deeply emotional core at its center. Brian and Mike are truly brothers in blue and not once do you question that.
As it sits End of Watch is a well-made cop drama that is as unafraid to show the audience the bond between officers forged by the daily horrors they face. Although it does somewhat glorify LA’s finest, at the same time it does a great job showing you just how much they can actually go through on a single given day. The story may be Ayer’s most clean-cut, but it works as a performance-centered film that never completely ruins the handheld gimmick.