End of Watch
Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Peña, Anna Kendrick, Natalie Martinez, America Ferrera, Frank Grillo, David Harbour
(Open Road Films; US theatrical: 21 Sep 2012 (General release); UK theatrical: 21 Sep 2012 (General release); 2012)
End of Watch is the kind of film that makes critic crazy. On the one hand, it has a decent premise (a look at the life of LA street cops battling drug cartels in South Central), two interesting lead performances, along with some excellent ancillary actor work, and a storyline that, while manipulative and a bit obvious, draws the viewer in with its knowledge of police procedure and the day to day drone of law enforcement. But that’s not good enough for writer/director David Ayer (Street Kings, Training Day). No, instead of telling this particular tale with an intensity to match the situations and the frequent intense violence, the filmmaker employs a trick that will either intrigue you or irritate you. If it’s the former, you’ll be fine. If it’s the latter, you’re in for a long, illogical ride.
What is that approach, you ask? Well, call in a combination of Paul Greengrass and The Blair Witch Project. That’s right - Ayers has decided to try and meld the ‘found footage’ ideal that made a particular jaunt through the backwoods of Massachusetts so compelling with the ‘you are there’ feel of hand held, shaky-cam action confusion. Instead of using straightforward techniques to draw us into the often horrific events, we wind up wondering just what the Hell is going on. Half the time, Ayers is allowing his ‘actors’ (more than likely through crewmembers) to capture the chaos themselves. Shirt pocket clip cams and that handy palm-sized devices are ever present. At other instances, the movie just wings it, looking for excuses to continue, and then contravene, the gimmick.
The main narrative has decorated officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena) stumbling across the often ungodly ways of the Mexican drug cartels in the USA. Used to dealing with small time drug pushers and domestic complaints, they have recently been cleared of charges surrounding a questionable shooting. Brian is an ex-Marine and has just started dating a girl named Janet (Anna Kendrick). Mike is a devoted family man whose been married to his wife (Natalie Martinez) since high school. Their typical day is spent patrolling the streets, answering calls and making arrests. But when a simple domestic concern balloons into a frightening Federal case, the guys are spooked. When another more gruesome discovery leads to a major bust, the South of the Border mobsters come calling, putting a hit out on our heroes.
For the first hour or so, End of Watch wants to immerse us in the everyday details of being a cop. We get the informal and often angry ribbing among the officers, the morning briefing and assignments…even the drudgery of helping welfare recipients and crazed crack heads. Buried in between are dash cam conversations between our two leads, sequences meant to build character without taking away from the proposed action. Yet Ayers doesn’t understand the basics of highlighting such personalities. Talking is fine, but everyone knows what speaks louder. This is especially true of a sequence where Mike, miffed that a defiant perp won’t back down, agrees to a mano-y-mano brawl with no legal consequences, no matter the outcome. The two fight, Ayers using every trick in the book to keep us in the middle of the melee, and then the two make peace.
It’s a terrific moment, one that End of Watch could use more of. Instead, Ayers aims for the ADHD attention span of his Netflix streaming demo and constantly confuses the issue. For example, our heroes stumbles upon a situation that provides up a chance at pure formula cliche - rescuing children from a burning building. It’s a potentially dynamite sequence, a suspenseful take on an old truism. So how does Ayers handle it? How does he get us “involved” in the unfolding drama? Easy - he shoots everything at floor level, reducing the retrieval to an ad for shag carpet. Carpet. That’s all we see…literally. Even when Brian and Mike are successful and sitting back, rejected help from the EMS team, we are stuck as outsiders unable to truly look in.
Sometimes, we can buy the ruse. When Brian and Mike come across the results of an “officer down” call, the POV approach actually heightens the suspense (especially when the duo come across the location of an endangered rookie cop). Similarly, when the two big trailer-promised reveals arrive, our ability to “discover” what is happening along with our leads works well. In other instances - an overlong wedding, a party provided by local hood Big Evil for his murderous posse - it fails miserably. Oddly enough, the finale is on the cusp. It provides a nice level of combat assault authenticity, that is, until it waddles its way to an ending so shameless that it should be a politician. After that, we get a couple of aborted codas before being treated to one of those unnecessary flashbacks which tries to force everything back into a “good” place. It doesn’t work.
In fact, so much of this movie doesn’t that it’s a shame when it finds a way to do so. Gyllenhaal and Pena are very good, as are many in the supporting cast. They may not be working with much more than sketches, but they all find a way to make such superficiality work. Similarly, Ayers does know his South Central setting. We never once question the complexities of the circumstances, either legally or illegally. No, the problem here all boils down to approach. For those who are fine with a frame that never stops jittering, with sequences shot from angles and POVs that undermine, rather than enhance, the entertainment experience, End of Watch will be a sensational cop drama. It’s United 93 in the scary streets of LA. For others, the nauseating style will simply drain the movie of its delights. Something more traditional may have saved it. As it stands, End of Watch wears out its welcome almost immediately, and never quite earns it back.