I must confess that it was with some weariness that I approached End of Watch. The blurb in the LFF brochure did not inspire confidence – another corrupt cops on the streets of LA pic? Rampart screened at last year’s festival, and while I liked that more than many, it did feel like the last film in a tired genre. Even more so, this was another such movie from the pen (and directed by) David Ayer – from Training Day to Dark Blue and Street Kings, did the guy really have anything new to say on the subject? And finally, it looked for all the world like this was going to be shot in a found footage style. And let’s face it, the cinematic world really does not need another of those.
However, the movie did prove to be something of a pleasant surprise. For a start, the lead characters – detectives Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala, played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña – are not actually corrupt. Sure, an early scene sees Zavala lay down his badge and gun to fight one-and-one with a goading suspect, but for the most part these are honest, hard-working cops, who do their job as best they can in often difficult circumstances. While Taylor and Zavala are richly written and superbly performed, Ayer treats their story less as a character study, more as a representation of the experiences of hundreds of streets cops on any day in this often violent city. Much of the film is given over to their daily patrols, discussing life, love and family matters, bantering and debating, as they cruise the streets, keeping one ear on their radios for reports of nearby trouble. These guys can certainly handle themselves both verbally and physically, as can the various colleagues and superiors we encounter along the way (including America Ferrera and Frank Grillo), but they are far from the clichéd, rule-breaking mavericks that this type of film usually depicts. They are cops because they want to uphold the law, nothing more, nothing less.
For the bulk of the running time, Ayer keeps the structure loose. We follow Taylor and Zavala into a series of potentially dangerous encounters with Mexican drug gangs and into a burning building to rescue a small child. We get snapshots of their homelife – Zavala has been happily married to sharp-talking Natalie Martinez since college, while Taylor is beginning a tentative relationship with Anna Kendrick’s smart Janet. Gyllenhaal and Peña’s chemistry is terrific, the ease of their performances suggesting a strong friendship and providing far more emotional weight than in any of Ayer’s previous work.
As with 90% of films which use found footage as an aesthetic, I was never entirely convinced it was necessary, but on the whole the technique does work pretty well. Taylor is attempting to document the daily life of an LA cop for a project, so attaches tiny cameras to both Zavala and himself, as well carrying a larger camcorder about with him. This style does lend the film an immediate, gritty feel – the streets and alleys of South Central LA have never felt so real and threatening. Less effective are the moments when the film cuts to the camera footage shot on the phones of various bickering gangbangers, and there are some scenes where Ayer abandons the technique entirely and shoots traditionally – these were were the moments when I wondered why the director was bothering with the style in the first place.
Similarly, the late-in-the-day introduction of a ‘plot’ feels rushed and somewhat unnecessary. Having closed down several operations run by a dangerous Mexican cartel, a price is placed on our heroes’ heads, leading to a tense, violent showdown. It does provide the film with a more traditional climax, but having been a strong, compelling drama for the previous 90 minutes, my feeling is that Ayer should have had the courage of his convictions and kept the film as an observational document throughout. It’s a minor complaint though. For the most part End of Watch remains an impressive and often powerful film that breathes new life into an otherwise hackneyed genre.