End of Watch is a found-footage style cop drama, directed and written by the writer of Training Day and Street Kings. It’s also markedly better than that sounds.
David Ayers, who also wrote the script for The Fast and the Furious, shoots the majority of the film from the perspective of Officer Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal), who drives a patrol car in South Central LA with his partner Mike Zavala (Michael Peña). Taylor carries with him a video camera at most times: He’s taken up film-making as part of an elective unit in a law degree.
The point is made early on about the incongruity of a beat cop who chooses to make a video record of day to day life on the beat – as one of his fellow officers points out, the footage can be subpoenaed if there are any complaints against him. Even so, Ayers makes it work, using ambient video sources (chest-mounted cameras, dashboard cameras) to supplement Taylor’s project.
In terms of style, it’s closer to The Shield than Cloverfield. The shaky-cam does add something to the dynamism of a foot chase, though footage shot of a car chase from the perspective of the dashboard cam inescapably brings to mind something like America’s Best Justified Use of Deadly Force.
Taylor’s opening voice-over monologue, in which he lays out his own personal creed on police work – “If you run away I will chase you. If you fight me I will fight back. If you shoot at me I will shoot back. By law I am unable to walk away. I am a consequence. I am the unpaid bill. I am fate with a badge and a gun” – this stands at odds with the surprising naturalism of the rest of the film.
End of Watch is often episodic, featuring weddings, birthdays, and yes, a funeral – this is the closest the genre gets to total naturalism. It charts the development of the relationship of the deceptively brainy Taylor and his new squeeze Janet (Anna Kendrick); Taylor having previously lamented ever finding an attractive woman with whom he can have a serious conversation.
It’s to End of Watch‘s credit that, despite these diversions, you never lose the sense the film is going somewhere, even if it never plays out quite as expected – the obvious choice for lead villain never materializes as such and at no point do you really feel you know how it’s going to all play out.
Gyllenhaal and Peña have great chemistry, from the casual affectionate racism, with Zavala doing his best white guy voice to talk about “white people shit”, like flavored coffee, and Taylor promising to pick him up a taco. There’s a lot of camaraderie between the two, though life in the patrol car is not without it’s tension – when Taylor bitches about Zavala having got his incident report out of order, you really get the impression that these are two guys who do this for a living.
The police station squad room is equally well rendered, from the playful animosity between our protagonists and the tetchy Van Hauser (David Harbour) and juvenile pranks involving shaving cream. End of Watch does the day-to-day procedural with remarkable fidelity, which manages to never feel dull or forced. The sporadic bursts of violence are done so cleanly, matter-of-factly – the film never dwells on or shies away from them. You get the feeling that this is just an unpleasant part of the job.
In what could otherwise have been a slice of life portrayal of life as a South Central job, there are premonitions of darker things to come. When Taylor and Zavilla’s earnest but haunted sergeant (Frank Grillo) delivers a maudlin, half-drunk anecdote to the rookies about the partner who took a bullet from him, you get the sense that End of Watch is slowly moving towards tragedy. By the time Gyllenhaal’s Taylor has cause to tell Zavilla, “I’m a happy, man”, you know the film is about to enter the end of second-act blues.
End of Watch may be broader, less plot-driven, than Ayers’ earlier offering to the canon, the Oscar-winning Training Day, I would argue that it is perhaps the better-made film. It may lack the kinetic energy of it’s predecessor or the grandstanding performance of an actor the caliber of Denzel Washington, but that by no means diminishes what End of Watch achieves.
Gyllenhaal’s shave-headed Taylor, who seems for some reason to be perpetually squininting, and Peña’s honour-bound family man Zavala are more fully realized, more believable, than Washington’s Alonso Harris; though they are of course very different characters in very different types of cop films.
Both films, however, have the same brand of moral ambiguity: a felon to whom Bryan and Zavilla have shown lenience warns them about a potential hit on them, just as in Training Day an act of kindness by Ethan Hawke’s Hoyt to a gang-banger’s niece ends up saving his life. Just because these are bad guys doesn’t mean they can’t be good guys; this is a world of favors and respect.
If other of the film’s villains aren’t as subtly portrayed – arguably one of End of Watches’ few dramatic failings – that’s because this is a cop film as opposed to Chekov. When a murderous posse rolls up behind Taylor and Zavala at a stoplight, Ayers cuts between the two cars – the former waiting to carry out an execution, the latter discussing the usual banalities – in order to generate tension. If the question remains as to exactly why a group of seasoned if arrogant police killers would look to record an attempted capital murder charge, this is nevertheless textbook film-making.
End of Watch’s greatest strength would seem to be its sense of fidelity. Having never having ridden a patrol car, I can only speculate, but on the head of it this would seem to be bite-size David Simon. If that feels like a high plaudit, the film, in my opinion, earns it.
In a recent interview, Jake Gyllenhaal castigated himself for allowing himself to be shot with a stun gun as part of training for the film – “I was an idiot… It felt terrible… I was screaming like a child… It felt like it was forever and it lasted a second and a half.” Say what you want about going method, but if there’s one thing End of Watch is nothing if not committed. These could be real people, real officers, out there in the world today, and the film works largely because of it.
From a directorial standpoint, the film isn’t showy, less so for instance than Ayers’ previous directorial effort, Street Kings. A POV down the barrel of a gun is about as gimmicky as End of Watch‘s approach gets, and if a particular shootout suffers from the occasional flash of videogame-style disconnect, that’s just an unavoidable part of the style.
The film comments on the futility of any cop, or pair of cops, attempting to stand alone – the tagline on it’s poster is “No cop survives alone” – but nevertheless valorizes any attempt to do so. When in the aforementioned funeral scene a seemingly endless procession of squad cars disgorge countless numbers of officers dressed up in their dress blues to pay their respects to fallen comrade(s), it’s clear that life goes on. Men may fall but the thin blue line endures.
End of Watch earns its stripes with solid performances, solid camerawork, a solid storyline. It’s well-made, well-executed, solid all the way through. If that sounds like faint praise, suffice to say it’s the best cop film I’ve seen in years. To call it a classic of solidity does not diminish it; there are no histrionics here, just good cinema.