Release Date: 23rd November 2012
Director: David Ayer
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Peña, Anna Kendrick, Natalie Martinez
End of Watch marks the third directorial effort made by L.A.-born David Ayer, who is often higher regarded for his talent behind the pen than the camera. His screenplays (including Training Day, Harsh Times, Dark Blue) have a tendency to fixate on crime and gang culture across the west coast of America, and End of Watch is no exception. The narrative depicts the lives of two beat cops operating within the City of Angels’ infamous South Central district and echoes some of the broader sentiments found in 80s buddy action films — albeit in a far less bombastic manner. Here, high-octane action and explosions are traded for an effective use of the found footage shooting style to give a distinctive feel that thankfully engrosses, rather than nauseates.
Ex-marine Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña) are dispatched to a new area of the city after murdering a suspect in self-defense during the opening sequence. Rife with racial tension between the black and hispanic communities this volatile environment leads the two down a crime rabbit hole which catches the attention of a powerful cartel seemingly involved in the trading of weaponry, drugs and human trafficking. It’s a tried-and-tested plot structure that will be familiar to genre fans involving the underdogs stumbling far beyond their jurisdiction, but is executed in a way which falls comfortably short of feeling hokey.
Taylor seeks to film as much of his day-to-day work as he can whilst attending a part-time class in filmmaking, allowing characters to acknowledge the camera and break the fourth wall throughout. At times, these acknowledgements felt pretty ham-fisted into the dialogue and could have easily have been left out. The device feels especially unnecessary when trying to justify its use in scenes which don’t involve Taylor and his camera — are we to assume that the gangsters are taking a class in filmmaking too? Or that they just enjoy producing their own incriminating evidence? Inconsistencies aside, End of Watch is at its best when leaves the fourth wall well enough alone and thankfully Ayer seems to recognise this as he selectively exploits the self-aware trope only when it makes sense to do so, more often than not.
Action sequences are suitably claustrophobic, fast-paced and tense but never to the point of obscurity. The handheld aesthetic is often chastised more than praised due to its gross overuse particularly in the horror and action genres. However, a conscious effort is made to ensure the action is easy to follow, even if that does mean dropping the use of Taylor’s camera with reckless abandon. At first glance it makes for a messy visual language, but it’s in favour of one that is far more digestible, involving and cinematic in style which is appreciated in the latter acts.
Brilliant performances make it easy to forgive most of the missteps made by the script. Gyllenhaal and Peña’s interactions are snappy and delivered with a naturalistic flow which works well to humanise what could have easily been a bland, clichéd, gung-ho relationship. Their sarcasm, quips and wise-cracks are timed well (if profanity-laden), injecting surprising amounts of humour, heart and charm into the grittiness. They are supported by a formidable — although slightly underused — supporting cast including the delightful Anna Kendrick as well as a who’s who of television character actors, and Ayer does well to highlight improvised nuances and subtleties in performances, cohering well with the fly-on-the-wall construction.
End of Watch has its fair share of flaws — it is clichéd, occasionally inconsistent and the villains of the piece ultimately lack venom. However, it is saved by great use of the handheld aesthetic, intense action sequences and memorable characters which the director takes pains to elevate beyond their otherwise bland archetypes, resulting in a somewhat refreshing take on a tired, trite genre in dire need of reinvention.