Training Day writer and Harsh Times/Street Kings director David Ayer returns to the mean streets of Los Angeles with his gritty new POV cop drama End of Watch, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena. End of Watch is Ayer’s attempt to translate an episode of Cops to the big screen, with an increased budget and more character interaction. The film’s POV approach mostly works, adding tension and thrills around every corner, but occasionally the film suffers from too much chaos and panic, making End of Watch a realistic and sort of satisfying cop drama that struggles to end on the right note, but gets a pass because of the performances and escalation of brute force.
Brian (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike (Michael Pena) are brothers of the badge; two of LA’s proudest and hardest-working cops. Together they are damn-near unstoppable, with Brian’s smarts and Mike’s quick reflexes making them two of the most well-known cops walking the streets on any given day. They’re gunslingers and go-getters, rarely taking a quiet call if something better comes down the line. But that relentlessness has a price and sooner or later if you knock on the door of the devil, someone is going to answer.
The two get themselves into something deep. Deeper than ever before and more dangerous now that they both have women to go home to and families in the making. At one point a federal agent steps in and tells them to cool off, but they keep on cracking away at something that has been brewing in the underworld of LA for months, possibly years. They eventually find what they’re looking for and in revealing this operation means a hit on both of their heads.
David Ayer‘s End of Watch fits nicely on Ayer’s resume of gritty cop dramas that usually features corruption and/or lots of death in some of the most gruesome of ways. End of Watch isn’t so much about the crookedness of cops or LA police as it is about what they actually have to go through on a day-to-day basis. This is Ayer’s most realistic film yet, featuring POV camera shots and grounded police work that probably isn’t too far from how it really goes down.
End of Watch has the gunfights and foot chases, but it also has the paperwork and the politics that comes with working under so many people in such a populated area. Ayer mostly uses the over-the-shoulder camera work to his advantage. The wall is broken down between the viewer and the film, creating a fully-fleshed out world of thugs, drugs and cops. The POV shots add a unique freshness to the film that has greater tension and suspense due to the viewer literally being attached to the film’s main characters.
There’s a particular scene towards the closing of the film that makes End of Watch an edge-of-your-seat showdown that will have you almost gasping for air. It’s filmed incredibly tight and yet it never suffers from that shaky cam syndrome that most cannot stand. The camera hides behind the pistols of Brian and Mike as they shoot their way through an apartment complex and out into the streets. It’s at this very moment that End of Watch benefits highly from the particular filming style that Ayer uses, but it’s also the only moment that really hits home.
The rest of the film contains several dodgy spots of camera work that renders parts completely unwatchable on the big screen. Perhaps on the home video round the film will be easier to sit through, but there are scenes that throw the camera completely out the window, only for it to be kicked down the street and tossed over a fence. By the time Ayer gets the camera where it needs to be, the scene is either done or too far in progressed for things to really settle in.
Luckily for Ayer, he has two gifted men like Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena leading the film. The two have on-point chemistry that is littered with quick and funny jokes that are the result of two people being stuck together in a squad car for hours on end. Gyllenhaal is the unofficial leader between the two and most of his lines seem to hit with a little more impact, but Pena holds his own well and needs no help carrying the drama when it calls for it. The two are absolutely powerful together and without them End of Watch would have felt a little too empty.
Their relationship is the driving force behind the film. Ayer rarely skips a chance to reinforce the importance of brotherhood and family in the film and without talented men like Gyllenhaal and Pena, End of Watch would have been a less than memorable attempt on behalf of Ayer.
There are a few problems in the film that hold it back from being as good as Ayer’s previous films. For one, some of the found-footage stuff is played out extremely silly. Instead of properly introducing the bad guys in the film, Ayer opts for quick-cut takes featuring drug dealers talking in the dark (filmed with night-vision cameras), while surrounded by donkeys. Dialogue is rarely understandable, because everything is filtered through street slang and the over-use of swearing. Literally every other word is fuck this or shit that, which makes the actual point hard to decipher.
Ayer’s focus is clearly not on the drug dealers or gang members, so we see the two groups briefly on their own. This hurts the film’s eventual climax, because nothing has any weight, aside from our main characters hopefully making it out alive. Their enemies are painted to be faceless and that feels more like cutting corners than anything.
End of Watch is still a step above most cop dramas getting released into the market. David Ayer‘s obsession with street-level grit and corruption is refreshingly dark and real and exactly what we need to counteract some of the more cheery police efforts from the major studios. It paints an impartial picture and humanizes police men and women instead of glorifying them and it’s effective. The tension created by Gyllenhaal and Pena’s performances, backed by Ayer’s constant need for unpredictability, is heavy, but it does get deflated by some one-dimensional villain work and an ending that juggles five different directions until the last minute.
Consider this one an experimental cop drama that pushes the boundaries of found-footage, while also falling in the trap setup by the restrictions of filming everything so close and so compact.
End of Watch – 7.5/10