LAPD officers Brian Taylor (Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Peña) are partners and best friends. As the notoriously tough South Central district of Los Angeles is their patch, they’re used to dealing with the more hardcore elements of policing. But as Brian starts recording their day-to-day activities as part of a film class he’s taking, the pair stumble on a dangerous drug cartel who aren’t to be taken lightly…
With found footage movies having enjoyed a revival over the last few years, it was only a matter of time before the crime genre was given the camcorder-like treatment. Employing both point-of-view shots and the overused shaky-cam approach, the love-it-or-hate it aesthetic works for the movie at times and against it at others. On one hand, it plunges us right there onto the grimy, sun-bleached streets and enables a sense of intense, up-close realism. But on the other, you find yourself asking who’s shooting each scene and questioning the general credibility (taking a camera into a life-or-death situation? Really?), while it initially feels like you’re watching a big-screen adaptation of Cops.
That End Of Watch rises above such quibbles is thanks to writer-director David Ayer. A man known for cop dramas (his resume includes writing Training Day, co-writing The Fast And The Furious, writing-directing Harsh Times, directing Street Kings and so on), it’s every inch as gritty, urban and informed as you’d expect from a police-collaborating filmmaker. What’s interesting though, is that while Ayer’s crimers typically present us with dirty cops within rotten departments, here he opts to change pace and honour the boys in black, in a way that is both authentic and romantic. Which is no mean feat.
But as always, Ayer’s strength lies in depicting two cops riding around LA in a car. More about bromance than homicide, End Of Watch really captures the feeling of long hours in a police cruiser, shooting the breeze via good-natured ethnic insults, and the way that good male friends communicate by taking the piss out of each other. Having spent five months observing protocol in the back of an actual LAPD patrol car, both Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña are hugely convincing as best pals who’ve forged a genuine bond. Even though the actors reportedly didn’t get along at first.
Elsewhere though, the movie is less convincing. While there a few sequences which are memorably grisly (see the guys discovering two cops who’ve been attacked), the crime plot is a touch conventional and the narrative feels slightly episodic, while the ending leaves you with an empty feeling. Moreover, the supporting characters are generally underwritten (see Anna Kendrick or an unrecognisable America Ferrara), although this is slightly understandable given that we’re dealing with a two-hander.
While the shaky-cam aesthetic works for the movie and against it, End Of Watch provides a policing portrayal which is both authentic and romantic. The crime plotting is a touch familiar, but the buddy dynamic is hugely convincing and watchable.