A film review by Craig J. Koban October 4, 2012


2012, R, 109 mins.


Taylor: Jake Gyllenhaal / Zavala: Michael Pena / Gabby: Natalie Martinez / Janet: Annna Kendrick / Sarge: Frank Grillo / Van Hauser: David Harbour

Written and directed by David Ayer

David Ayer’s urban police procedural END OF WATCH approaches masterful greatness so frequently and that it’s borderline nerve-wracking when it doesn’t.  

The writer/director most certainly has an affinity for cops (he previously wrote and directed the sometimes brilliant HARSH TIMES and the misguided STREET KINGS while more famously penning better efforts like TRAINING DAY and DARK BLUE), but END OF WATCH is an atypical entry for this genre in the sense that it’s not only a bravura and painstakingly realistic portrayal of what being a big city police officer is like on and off duty, but it also shows flawed cops as, deep down, good and noble individuals that want to serve the greater good.  The boys in blue in END OF WATCH certainly disregard rules, to be sure, but they make heroic sacrifices that many wouldn’t on the job. 

Yet, for as noble as Ayer’s execution of the themes is here, END OF WATCH is both aided and ultimately hurt by its inconsistent aesthetic style.  The film does have a nifty approach: Iinstead of just shooting the film with a straightforward style, Ayer tries to dig deeper into the action of his two L.A.P.D. officers by having one video tape their day-to-day work activities as part of a film school project.  One of the officers shoots with a tiny camcorder, but both him and his partner have even tinier cameras attached to their uniforms so that as much footage can be captured as possible.  All in all, this follows in the footsteps of the found-footage/moc-doc genre efforts and it most definitely evokes a sensation of startling intimacy and verisimilitude in the film.  However, when the action is not centered on the two officers, Ayer still frustratingly shoots the rest of the film in the same queasy-cam style.  This left me shaking my head in so much in puzzlement that I found myself more taken out of the film more than engrossed with it. 



Even more distracting is that – like many of the more troublesome found-footage films – the actual rationale for a character filming his activities is flimsily constructed here.  Jake Gyllenhaal plays Brian Taylor of the L.A.P.D. that is taking a film class in his spare time (which is introduced and addressed early on and then sort of completely forgotten about) and wishes to record his daily grind on the beat with his partner and BFF, Mike Zavala (Michael Pena).  They work the most grueling shifts for cops in the notorious Southland area, where they seem to draw their pistols and get in harm’s way more often in a day than most cops during their entire careers.  Most of what they do borders on triviality, and even some teeters on unethical behavior (i.e. – challenging a perp to a fist fight because he trash talked you), but a considerable amount of what they do is definitely laudable.  These guys want to protect and serve above everything else, even when their f-bomb riddled exchanges and overall gutter language makes them seem like they are from the hood. 

Nonetheless, South Central L.A. is a very dangerous place, alive with drugs, gangs, and wanton violence, making Brian and Mike feel on the edge at every given moment.  Even though their lives are in danger during every hellish night shift, the two officers are still upbeat and – perhaps to their own odd discredit – ferociously ambitious.  They manage to uncover a vast underground Mexican drug cartel distribution ring right in the City of Angels, which – along the way – attracts some very unwanted attention their way from the kingpins south of the border.  Even when government agents tell Brian and Mike to lay low and not get in too deep and in over their heads, Brian and Mike find themselves still driven to investigate the drug ring, which culminates with the cartel hatching a vengeful plan to eradicate them as quickly as possible. 

Gyllenhaal and Pena are the glue that keeps END OF WATCH from drowning in clichéd cop thriller waters.  The two spent five months training to be on-screen officers by spending 12-hour ride-along-days with L.A.’s finest.  Whenever they are on-screen there is rarely a moment where you don’t believe in the utter credibility of their performances.  What’s compelling about their work is that they effortlessly elicit in their officers two intrepid, courageous, sometimes foolish, and quick thinking souls that must traverse through the hazardous streets of L.A. and make it feel like just another proverbial day on the job.  Even when they rescue children from burning buildings, interrogate suspects, get shot at and threatened, and so forth, Brain and Mike are just two ordinary Joes doing a job.  It’s the attention to that intangible minutia of the microcosm of the lives of these officers that Gyllenhaal and Pena nail; they make you feel like a fly-on-the-wall observer of their brotherhood and partnership. 

Matching the sensitivity and intimacy that the actors generate with their virtuoso performances is the startling immediacy and intensity that Ayer creates in the film as well.  Using the free-flowing and spontaneous found-footage sensibility (much of which was actually shot by Gyllenhaal himself) allows Ayer to drum up propulsive and aggressively in-your-face action and moments of shocking violence and mayhem (there are times when the film plays like COPS on acid) that typically jangles viewers' nerves and keeps them perpetually on edge.  It’s also somewhat refreshing to have a film where the cameras are in the hands of the police instead of what could have been a documentary film crew within the film that follows their actions.  

At the same time, though, why is the rest of the film that does not concern Brian and Mike shot with the same rough and loose technical artifice?  Ayer’s shaky-cam style serves its purpose when honing in on the grind and sense of impending danger for his officer characters, but when he’s zeroing in on them all of the other scenes are fitted with low-res cameras, zipping pans, and headache-inducing motion.  To what purpose does this serve…and to what rational sense?  Ayer’s knee-jerk insistence on framing the entirety of the film like this becomes a distracting endurance test the longer the film goes on, almost to the point where we become less enthralled by the officer’s story and more numbed into submission by it.  Again, Ayer’s approach here is for the utmost realism, and you do get that with the chaotic footage of the officers, but everything else in the film feels suffocated while utilizing a similar approach. 

A few other things nagged me as well.  For as sharp, sophisticated, and edgy as the portrayal of the cops was, Ayer wallows in formula and convention with his one-note portrayal of the standard-issue Mexican drug villains.  Furthermore, the women in Brian and Mike’s lives (played well by Anna Kendrick and Natalie Martinez respectively) seem delegated to the sidelines and are pitifully underwritten (as is the case with many male-centric cop films).  Lastly, the end of the film is a cheat: It offers an unsettlingly climax that sets up audiences for a would-be gut-wrenching sense of closure and sad gravitas that’s then disrespected by two tacked-on scenes to conclude the film that seem to exist only to reassure and make us feel okay.  END OF WATCH is a sobering wake up call to those that admonish the police; it rightfully holds these men and women up to the heights of higher respect that many of them deserve.  I just wished that Ayer’s approach in the film was steadier and more reliable. There is a truly great film in here...somewhere.  


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