Is this really the fantastic weekend for movies that I think it is or am I just in an unseasonably good mood? End of Watch from writer/director David Ayer is another fantastic movie that was somehow released in the traditional cinematic dumping ground of September. Yesterday, I gave a high rating to Dredd for being an exhilarating throwback to the great action movies of the ‘80s; today, I’m giving a positive review to End of Watch for being almost the complete opposite of Dredd. If Dredd excelled at presenting pure fantasy to movie goers, End of Watch excels at pulling movie goers into a gritty, realistic world.
This police procedural follows officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena) as they patrol one of the worst beats in South Central Los Angeles. Throughout the movie, the duo contends with drug dealers, addicts, human traffickers, murderers, and cartels. In between tours of hell, Taylor and Zavala manage to live their lives, fall in love, and behave as typical human beings. If End of Watch has one major strength which puts it ahead of nearly all other buddy cop movies, it’s the humanity David Ayer manages to inject into his characters.
If the movie has suffers one major weakness, it’s that passages of it feel as if it were shot on an iPhone. Yes, unfortunately, End of Watch is yet another in a long line of found footage films; the entire film is based off the premise that Taylor is documenting his work as part of a project for a film class he’s taking at a local college. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at this development. The found footage conceit has been applied to the horror genre and the superhero genre; it was only a matter of time before the found footage conceit found its way into the buddy cop genre.
Bring Dramamine if you’re going to see End of Watch in theaters. There are only a couple of action scenes in the movie, but they all bear the shaky cam feel of a Paul Greengrass picture. Of course, David Ayer thankfully breaks the cinematic rules of his own film whenever a scenario calls for it. In moments either crucial to the plot or to the emotional development of the characters, the camera documenting the proceedings takes on a stability completely inconsistent with that of one wielded by an amateur documentarian under duress. As a result, we’re left with a mostly clean looking film that is occasionally marred by incomprehensibility.
And yet, Ayer’s touching and unpredictable screenplay combined with the genuinely brilliant performances of Gyllenhaal and Pena serve to elevate End of Watch into the realm of great cop movies. In their roles, the two actors feel like flesh and blood officers rather than Hollywood caricatures. Michael Pena and Jake Gyllenhaal share a natural chemistry together that really emerges as the two spend their downtime jabbering like characters in a Quentin Tarantino movie. Pena, in particular, is so convincing that I wouldn’t be surprised if he garners a variety of best supporting actor nominations for his work here once the awards season roles around.
The two young cops are brash and arrogant, but they’re not bad people, and they’re not bad cops. In one scene early on, the two arrive at the residence of an uncooperative thug. When the thug threatens the two officers, Pena takes off his gun and belt and beats the man into submission in a fair fist fight. Later, we learn that after the suspect was taken in, Taylor and Zavale only booked him on misdemeanor reckless conduct instead of sending him away for the felony of fighting with police officers. That’s just how they operate; they’re adrenaline junkies with a streak of fairness.
Much like many young, brash, hotshot cops, Taylor and Zavale take unnecessary risks. They bend the rules, but they don’t break them, and yet they’re generally professional in performing their duties. Of course, their proclivity for bending the rules leads them to tragedy as the title implies.
Ayer’s screenplay gives Gyllenhaal and Pena a lot to work with, too. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a police procedural quite as refreshing and original as this. Ayer eschews the traditional three act structure; characters randomly appear and disappear. Some characters who appear early on figure into the overarching plot, and some don’t. Some plot strands are severed and never resolved. Nothing is wrapped up a neat, tidy package like in a traditional novel or film.
A typical day in the life of Taylor and Zavale is as unpredictable and disorderly as a day in the life of a real police officer. Normally I would attribute this lack of structure to lazy story telling on the part of the screenwriter, but given the reality that Ayer manages to establish here, the chaotic nature of the proceedings feels entirely appropriate. In the context of this film, the storytelling verges on being inspired.
And that kinda sums up End of Watch. It’s somewhat familiar and yet wholly different from the majority of what Hollywood puts out. It’s well made, and yet it’s unpredictable. It’s unstructured and yet brimming with chaotic energy. In the end, it’s hard to pin down End of Watch in any way other than to say it’s simply a great movie.