Having grown up as a teen on the troubled streets of South Central Los Angeles, writer and director David Ayer is fast becoming the best chronicler of the crime, social injustice and random violence that forever plagues the city of angels. Since writing the screenplays for Training Day and Dark Blue, Ayer has turned to directing with the underrated Harsh Times, Street Kings and now End of Watch.
End of Watch follows two L.A. patrol cops Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena) as they cruise around the streets and apprehend various criminal low lives. Taylor and Zavala stumble on to something much bigger though and find themselves marked for death by a Mexican drug cartel. Along the way we learn of their hopes, dreams and the loves in their life and how close the two of them are.
There really is pretty much nothing to the plot of End of Watch but it’s a credit to how strong the performances are and how well staged most of it is that David Ayer keeps you gripped for the entire near two hours of its running time. Gyllenhaal and Pena are phenomenal in these roles, entirely convincing as two guys who spend long twelve-hour days faced with human scum together and the bond that has grown up around those circumstances is convincing and has an organic feel. It seems as though the two of them must have actually spent weeks together just driving around because not for one moment do you think you are watching two actors give a performance. The camerawork helps but more on that later.
The thriller aspect also works and Ayer does little for the Los Angeles tourist board. The worrying suggestion in one early scene seems to be that a racial shift seems to be happening on the streets and that those who are coming in are far far worse than those being killed and incarcerated who are going out. This is backed up by the three or four Latino drug kingpins who we see doing the bidding of their cartel masters who truly do not care for themselves or for anyone other than their ruthless masters. As an audience we are privy to the scenes involving the bad guys but the two cops are not, only stumbling on various crime scenes and horrific scenes of murder whilst we know what is waiting just around the corner for them. The last twenty or so minutes of this film are unbearably tense because having spent so much time with these affable unappreciated hero types and knowing they are marked for death, you start to really care what is going to happen and it makes the finale all the more gut churning. An ambush scene through an L.A. apartment block is difficult to watch not just because of the sound and fury present but because you know the cops are hopelessly outgunned at this point.
So it’s incredibly frustrating to report that End of Watch is hampered by that very thing that is currently making the straight to DVD horror field such a miserable place to be; the ‘found footage’ sub-genre. At the start they make a good case for it, Gyllenhaal’s character is studying law and his minor degree is in filmmaking so he is bringing his camera everywhere and filming his life on the streets. They also set it up so that both Gyllenhaal and Pena have camera’s placed in buttons on their uniform. So that’s three cameras but somewhere around thirty minutes in Ayer forgets about this and places found footage style cameras wherever he likes whilst also switching back to traditional film still cameras whenever the action calls for it.
As a result stylistically it’s all over the place and an early fight scene is unwatchable. There is a scene where we switch to a camera on a pump-action rifle, not looking down the barrel but looking the other way back at the guy’s hand just holding it whilst he has a chat with his superior. The choice to use the ‘found footage’ style seems more a concession to what is currently hip and less a consideration of how to best tell a story and it’s what holds End of Watch back from classic status.
David Ayer has made the best cop thriller in years but a very flawed one. There is still lots of very impressive stuff here. Let’s see if he can truly revive Schwarzenegger’s career with his next film Ten.