If I were to pitch you a movie about two police officers who are partners on patrol in South Central Los Angeles, one of your first inclinations might be “not another buddy copy comedy.” While “End of Watch” is often funny, the newest film from “Training Day” writer David Ayer, is no comedy.
Ayer, who spent a lot of time in South Central, takes the found footage approach to his latest film featuring the LAPD in the spirit of modern trends and perhaps the show “Cops.”
It’s hard to tell if Ayer’s exaggerating, but a lot of dangerous stuff happens to Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Zavala (Michael Peña) despite being beat cops. So much so that they get involved with the wrong Mexican gang, and their attempts to go above and beyond to protect and serve put them in the line of fire.
Gyllenhaal and Peña have incredible chemistry as two cops who are best friends as well as partners. They epitomize the modern “bromance” in a number of ways, joking around, giving each other a hard time, offering love/dating advice with hyper-masculine sarcasm, etc. Ayer takes time to show these men out of their blues frequently to humanize them in a critical way. On the job, they are often cocky, proud and reckless, pushing the line of appropriate police behavior and protocol. They jump back and forth between making laudable, responsible choices and borderline police brutality.
The portrait that this paints of law enforcement feels so much more authentic than we’re normally treated to in cop films and police procedurals on television. They are heroes and good, honorable men, but that doesn’t make them beacons of morality. No matter how much you believe in the quickly escalating plot of “End of Watch,” there’s no disagreement to be had over the authenticity of the characters and the environment they operate in.
Although we do get independent “episodes” in which Taylor and Zavala respond to calls and find more than they bargained for, there’s a through-line involving a powerful Mexican drug cartel and the gang that enforces it. Ayer glamorizes these thugs a little bit, but it makes them formidable villains in the story. As things come to a boil, the realism of the film really unravels in favor of a more compelling, heart-pounding finale.
Ayer takes certain liberties with the found footage style as well. The premise involves Taylor filming everything for a school project or something. He has a handheld camera but also cameras positioned in the squad car, and ones that clip onto their uniforms. The gangs also carry cameras around to film their violent escapades. At times, however, we can’t tell who is supposed to be holding the camera — like when Taylor starts making out with his girlfriend, Janet (Anna Kendrick). Neither is holding the camera, so that’s a bit strange.
Still, that filmmaking style does more good than harm to the film. Say what you will about the found footage trend, but this is an appropriate example that really works. The extra layer of realism and authenticity that the technique gives to a film really goes miles in favor of “End of Watch.”
Humor is an unexpected benefit of this film as well. Peña has failed to be funny in films including “Tower Heist” and “30 Minutes or Less,” but he succeeds in territory that blends it with the dramatic in this very organic way. It would be impressive if most of the dialogue in this film, at least between him and Gyllenhaal, weren’t improvised given how natural it flows.
It sounds like a stretch to consider this one of the better acted films of the year, but Gyllenhaal and Peña should’ve been considered for awards contention. The nature of found footage detracts from what we tend to associate with/look for in an Oscar-worthy performance. We expect authenticity from found footage and only comment when it goes poorly, not when it’s done exceptionally well. Having seen enough films made in the found footage style, no other two actors have done better in this genre.
“End of Watch” offers an intense look at the life of L.A.’s finest and a harrowing portrait of life in the barrios and gang-ridden parts of L.A. Although exaggerated at crucial points, it shows what can happen when officers try and step out of their clearance level. At the least, it’s one of the best films found footage has given us to date.
Written and Directed by David Ayer
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Peña, Anna Kendrick, Natalie Martinez