The bond that is built between partners in the police department is more than just an inevitable sense of camaraderie. It’s a powerful relationship that can only be mirrored by close brotherly love. If promising to lay down one’s own life in order to preserve the law isn’t brave enough, this relationship also outlines an unwritten promise to lay down your life in order to save your partner, and the reality of this tight connection is brought to life by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña in David Ayer’s new cop drama, End of Watch. Ayer puts a great deal of faith in his two stars as he lets them develop their characters as they work through a number of improvised back-and-forths. They convincingly provide the heart to a movie that Ayer believes will thrive on the unnecessary found footage-esque gimmick that’s nothing more than visually jarring and lazily executed. Ayer’s mistaken innovation is what brings End of Watch down from a rich and engrossing character drama to just being another tastelessly bloody, gritty, and empty cop drama.
LAPD officers Brian Taylor (Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Peña) work the dirty and dangerous beat in one of the many districts of South Central, Los Angeles; an area bred by gang violence, ceaseless drug problems, and a handful of other miscellaneous law-breaking activity. After a brutal gunfight in the streets opens the flick, Taylor and Zavala partake in seemingly never-ending heroics. As they cruise the streets pursuing gangs, stopping disorderliness, facing raging house fires, and breaking up life-threatening fights, Taylor carries around an HD Sony Handycam and places it in various locations giving the audience a variety of immersive camera angles to view the story. Why does Taylor have this camera with him? Apparently he’s taking pre-law courses and is expected to take an art elective as part of his schedule so he chose filmmaking. This throwaway excuse is never referred to or shown again. Their strong police work leads to a hot-headed and cocky attitude which their fellow LAPD officers begin to notice, before long they’ve stuck their noses into more illegal territory than one should. Taylor and Zavala find themselves in the crosshairs of a violent Hispanic gang and simply patrolling the ghetto streets in the confines of a cop car progresses to the first person experience of a frenetic, potentially life-ending firefight.
This thrill-less narrative may seem surprisingly hollow for a filmmaker like Ayer. Though working as a director and a screenwriter nowadays, Ayer got his big break as the writer for 2001’s Training Day and that film, like his previous films, tend to have relatively twisty plots, but End of Watch’s storyline doesn’t possess any similarities to Ayer’s past credits. The thin story feels very disconnected and fails to be as emotionally investing as Ayer wants it to be. The climax that is supposed to be riveting, instead feels very forced, almost as if Ayer presents it to us because he knows a cop drama is supposed to have some sort of explosive climax.
Ayer owes every single one of the film’s few merits to his two leads; Gyllenhaal impresses with a thoughtfully human performance, Taylor actually feels like an extension of his role from Jarhead,and Peña adds fine contrast as a highly sarcastic, politically incorrect Hispanic-American who provides much of the film’s great humor. Due to the likeable actors’ talents, the friendship this unlikely duo showcases is very believable, but they are let down by Ayer’s weak plot and poor directing style. It is Ayer, who seems unable to write or direct anything outside of this subgenre, who robs the film of reaching its full potential by having a stagnant story structure and ill-conceived directional choices overshadow rich, endearing characterization. These are two characters, and definitely two actors, who I would love to see bring these characters to a television screen where we can revisit them weekly playing off one another and showing us what real friendship looks like.
Even with a deeper plot End of Watch would still not be the revolutionary cop drama it strives to be, and the nauseating POV direction style needs to be removed as well. The film is an easy watch, sure, but End of Watch would be far less frustrating of a viewing experience if Ayer shot the film traditionally. Gyllenhaal and Peña wear the gun, cuffs, and badge well and are top notch as buddy cops and End of Watch has all the components necessary to be a fine enough action film, but it would function a whole lot better if it wasn’t trying so hard to be more than it should be.
Review by Mike Murphy