End of Watch transports us (often first-hand) into the world of LAPD officers who patrol the gangland war zone that is South Central Los Angeles. Our guides on the journey are officers Mike Zavala (Michael Peña) and Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) – the latter of whom is documenting the life of a cop on film for a college course (hence the film’s uneven reliance on found-footage perspective – but more on that later).
As longtime friends and partners, Mike and Brian have faced the worst of South Central without fear; however, when a string of busts put the two patrolmen on the trail of a notorious Mexican cartel, Brian decides to follow the scent all the way down the rabbit hole. Before long, Mike and Brian find themselves in the crosshairs of the city’s worst criminals, turning an already dangerous job into a life or death battle in the streets.
Writer/director/producer David Ayer has made his name in the industry by delivering hard-boiled tales of crime in the LA streets. Many already know and love his written work, as Ayer provided scripts for films like Training Day, Dark Blue, S.W.A.T. and even The Fast and the Furious – a franchise which began as a look into the LA underworld of street racing. While his writing has been fairly lauded, his directorial work has pretty much been hit (Harsh Times) or miss (Street Kings), so the question is, where does End of Watch fall on that spectrum?
Despite what the marketing materials suggest, End of Watch is actually less of an action/thriller and more of a slow-burn character piece about two best friends living in a dangerous world. This is not to say the movie is not captivating or exciting – it often is – but it also stands as Ayer’s most mature and creative directorial effort thus far. By toying with the “found-footage” format, Ayer transports the audience right to the front line of being a police officer, staging many set pieces within the tight confines of houses or apartment complexes, thereby ramping up the tension as viewers experience (first-hand) the anxiety of every tight corner or length of hallway that might conceal a terrible threat. Much of the film can be compared to playing a 1st Person shooter video game – one that’s nerve wracking enough to get the blood pumping.
Because the found-footage format works so well in this context, it becomes an even bigger distraction that Ayer is not consistent with his use of the format. Sometime after a lengthy introduction and explanation for why the format is being employed, End of Watch chooses to deviate from that POV, switching to standard third-person camera techniques for certain scenes – sometimes alternating between both POV styles in the same scene. While not exactly a botched approach (from a directorial standpoint), the inconsistency in the POV style is nonetheless distracting and shows that, in terms of technique, Ayer still has a few wrinkles to smooth out.
Thankfully, the performances of the lead actors outweigh the stumbles in direction. Gyllenhaal and Peña are both capable leading men in their own right (Peña in particular has been criminally underrated in just about every film he’s done), and together, the two have infectious onscreen chemistry. Since much of the film rests on Brian and Mike out on patrol and swapping dude-talk, End of Watch could easily have been a bore. However, through a combination of Gyllenhaal’s signature ‘complicated charming guy’ likability and Peña’s proven comedic timing and sensibility, delving into Mike and Brian’s bromance is actually successful in making us care about these two men – and therefore, making us genuinely worry about them when put in harm’s way.
…And worry about them you most certainly will. As stated, Ayer manages to turn even the sunniest streets of South Central LA into a treacherous and frightening jungle, where seemingly nice, average houses reveal black-as-night hallways, and back rooms filled with nightmares ranging from half-mad junkies to sickening human trafficking to open graves piled high with dismembered bodies. If nothing else, this film is a solid PSA for NOT living in Los Angeles.
There are, also, some pretty fearsome predators roaming the streets – and the cartel baddies that Mike and Brian run afoul of are certainly frightening in their own right. This includes psychotic tattooed assassins like loudmouthed La La (Yahira Garcia), B.G. (baby gangsta) trainee, Demon (Richard Cabral) and their imposing leader “Big Evil” (Maurice Compte), whose nickname pretty much defines his character. As usual, Ayer provides insight into street gang culture that’s almost as interesting as watching the overarching story – especially when it comes to characters like rival gang leader, Mr. Tre (Cle Shaheed Sloan), whose twisted street ethics are a fascinating study in their own right.
Supporting cop characters are played by Frank Grillo (The Grey) and David Harbour (The Newsroom) - but with the exception of Cody Horn (Magic Mike) and America Ferrera (Ugly Betty) as two ‘tougher-than-the-boys,’ trash-talking lady cops, these characters aren’t that memorable (…maybe Harbour, but not for his acting as much as the gruesome fate of his character). Natalie Martinez (Death Race) and Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air) play the ladies behind our heroic boys in blue – and while Kendrick has her usual cutesy charm, Martinez manages to steal many of the scenes she is in right out from under the other actors.
While there is evidence of much growth in Ayer as a director, End of Watch still leaves significant room for improvement. Aside from the confusing narrative approach to the film (that pesky POV switching), the story itself is almost too slow of a burn and often feels totally episodic, without major payoff. That’s to say: watching End of Watch is almost like viewing the condensed season of a cop procedural TV show – only the individual episodes don’t offer much self-contained development or payoff, while the larger serialized story takes far too long to develop and doesn’t tie together all of the threads introduced in each preceding “episode.” The action-packed ‘fight for their lives’ sequence shown in the trailers is but a bookend to the film, while the majority of time is spent on a (sometimes meandering) journey through the bowels of LA, albeit alongside two enjoyable guides.
As a ride-along movie, End of Watch provides a semi-fresh look at a stale genre and thoroughly-explored world; as a character piece, it invests time and attention in two interesting characters played by two capable leads; as a work of crime-drama or action-thriller genre filmmaking, however, End of Watch may disappoint those used to more run-n-gun fun, rather than the grounded, “verite” style Ayer creates. As a whole, the film is a somewhat uneven mix of static conversation scenes and hyper-tense suspense sequences; if Ayer can find a way to further streamline those discordant rhythms into a more harmonious whole, he will create some truly excellent (rather than just good) crime-drama cinema.
End of Watch is currently playing in theaters. It is Rated R for strong violence, some disturbing images, pervasive language including sexual references, and some drug use.