End of Watch. 2012. Directed & Written by David Ayer.
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Peña, Anna Kendrick, Natalie Martinez, America Ferrera, Frank Grillo, & David Harbour.
Exclusive Media/Crave Films/Le-Grisbi/EFF.
Rated 18A. 108 minutes.
With a couple titles under his belt, David Ayer took everyone by storm with the screenplay Antoine Fuqua used for Training Day. Afterwards, he did two excellent, underrated films – Dark Blue, a Rampart-era crooked cop thriller with Kurt Russell, and Harsh Times starring Christian Bale in a knockout role as an LAPD hopeful alongside Freddy Rodriguez in fine form as his conflicted friend.
Finally, we come to End of Watch. One of the most surprising films of any genre in 2012. For something I assumed might be generic, this movie takes me for a wild ride each time.
Ayer effectively combines the found footage sub-genre with an intense crime thriller set in Los Angeles, as we follow two close friends and partners in the LAPD on their journey towards a meeting with something worse than even the gang banging they see everyday on the streets. Whereas many movies employing the use of found footage, aside from an extreme minority, are often low budget productions, End of Watch succeeds in part due to its stellar cast, lead by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña. Most of all, Ayer brings the action, amps up the emotion, and this crime-thriller goes as fast as a cop cruiser especially after the plot sets the stakes high.
You can do a million times worse when it comes to cop flicks, and definitely this is one of those films using found footage that’s worth seeing, more than once. If this doesn’t get your adrenaline flowing, you might be dead. So check that pulse.
Officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña) are closer than brothers: best friends, long time partners on the job. They are energetic, excitable, even foolish. Their lives are normal, other than the fact they spend their days and nights protecting Los Angeles, often from the gang warfare spreading through the lower class neighbourhoods. Brian tries to find the love of his life, while Mike gives his best advice and acts like any best friend would.
Meanwhile, the South American cartels worm their way up into L.A. More and more violence spills onto American streets. After Brian and Mike find themselves confronted with a nasty gangland situation, bodies literally stacked in a tiny stash house, the cartel ends up greenlighting them for death. On the streets, all cops have are each other. And up against the cartel Brian and Mike find that’s never been more true in their entire career.
One of the immediate aspects of this film which drew me in, and does every time, is the character development in the lead roles. Not just that, the relationship between the characters and the chemistry of Gyllenhaal and Peña together is strong, so naturally that makes things sentimental. And it gives everything in the plot more emotional resonance. We’ve all seen those cop movies where there’s a ton of talk about the thin blue line, the whole thing about how partners are closer than family, yadda, yadda, yadda. But Ayer brings his deep respect and knowledge of law enforcement to the screenplay here. The way he portrays Brian and Mike as these bonded buddies, spending time together on and off the job, at the quinceañera of Mike’s cousin, all these different events, we actually get the feeling these men know one another to the bone. Without using totally expository portions of dialogue Ayer conveys their tried and true broship, and it’s all the more effective that way. Yes, there’s a ton of dialogue in this movie, but Ayer doesn’t resort to telling constantly. He shows us, and the relationship between partners is a perfect example of how to do that.
Further than just the two leads, the entire cast is great. Although I’m not fond of the Mexican gangster chick, the lesbian girl, because I found her extremely annoying, I do dig the focus on that Mexican gang. Because amongst all the happiness and excitement of the cops’ lives there’s a sinister element with this crew, as we watch them rolling around in the night, creeping, preparing for horrific things. And it’s also a nice parallel with Brian filming for a class, and the gangsters filming themselves, foolishly, simply because they can and because they’re likely voyeuristic about their crimes/adventures.
On top of that, there’s a solid supporting performance from Frank Grillo, an ever interesting actor whose talent shines from one project to the next. He has a few scenes that are just spectacular. For instance, there’s a brief little scene with him at Brian’s wedding where he is obviously a few drinks in and talking to some younger officers, recounting a story of a partner who took a bullet for him, so on. He sells this to the fullest extent. Grillo’s in barely a handful of scenes, but this one in particular makes him memorable in a short period of time; part writing, part raw talent.
The style of the movie keeps things exciting. Ayer moves around in technique, from a found footage style combining both Brian’s camera and the body cameras on Gyllenhaal or Pena (not sure if these are meant as the director’s camera or if they’re meant to be department issued character cameras; either way it works) to a more steady, composed style that captures everything almost just as intense as the former. We get that frenetic feel of a show like COPS, but also with a more defined sense of directorial style. There’s even some other small shifts in technique like the night vision that adds tiny intriguing moments to the plot. Ayer isn’t just style either. He knows how to write and from scene to scene he display a knack for making things more threatening, more high energy. For instance, later in the film when Brian and Mike find themselves being hunted by Mexican gang members on order from the cartel, they run through an apartment block – as we see them headed towards an area, Ayer gives us this great P.O.V. shot of an assault rifle pointed down towards where they’re moving. It is a brief, simple shot, though demonstrates exactly the way in which Ayer knows how to intensify his action. After this we’re privy to a bunch of stylish 1st-person shots, action at that – both Brian and Mike pop off shots at Mexican gang bangers while trying to escape the neighbourhood where they’ve found themselves stranded. This climactic action sequence is some of the better action of the past couple years because it’s intense, Gyllenhaal and Peña give it their all, as well as the fact Ayer makes it so stylised without needing any special effects, other than the wizardry that goes on behind the cameras.
This is absolutely a contemporary action stunner that deserves a place amongst some of the best crime-thrillers of the past decade or more. David Ayer’s ability to do action alongside excellently written characters, emotionally charged plots, is on display full-time in End of Watch. The actors make this better than so many average films that use found footage as their gimmick. Also, Ayer’s style using elements of the sub-genre along with a cop movie that has some terrific action makes this plenty fun. You’ll likely find yourself drawn into the lives of the main characters. By the end, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña make these two officers into real people, their situation becomes engrossing and the conclusion of their story is devastatingly affecting. While I love something tough yet endearing, a little campy like Lethal Weapon, cop flicks don’t come as edgy, grizzled, and vividly expressed as this one too often. End of Watch may actually be in a class all of its own.