‘End of Watch’ Does Right by Its Subjects, Its Genre and Its Much Maligned Format

David Ayer knows his beat: he makes cop movies. He wrote Dark Blue, S.W.A.T., and Training Day, the latter including a part that helped win Denzel Washington a Best Actor Oscar. He also wrote and directed a couple of movies, Harsh Times and Street Kings, about more cops, competing with Washington’s villainous Alonzo Harris for the title of LAPD Officer You Least Want Pulling You Over. And now he has written and directed End of Watch also about LAPD cops, also violent and profane. He’s not unaware of his lot in life. “I’ve done so many cop movies,” he admits on the Blu-ray commentary track.

Yet his lengthy resume of gritty face-offs on the streets of Los Angeles serves, intentionally or not, as misdirection for End of Watch. The new film looks and sounds, at first, like any number of Ayer films, with a found-footage gimmick: the movie is shot largely (though not entirely) from the vantage of police cameras, either mounted on the dash of a squad car or lodged in the hand of Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal), a young officer partnered up with Mike Zavala (Michael Pena). Given the well-trod ground both thematic (by Ayer) and stylistic (by any number of horror movies and comedies), it sounds like a prelude to by-the-numbers obligation – here’s that found-footage cop movie you ordered (Ayer even mentions on his commentary that the found-footage angle was suggested by a friend).

But whether by accident or design, End of Watch turns out to be the best film Ayer has ever worked on, and the best cop movie in ages. It fixes its cameras at ground level, observing Taylor and Zavala on uniformed neighborhood patrols. They bicker playfully, they back each other up, they take guff from senior officers, and they try to do the right thing in horrible situations. The movie attempts to replicate the mix of routine and eventfulness in the officers’ lives; it feels unhurried and lived-in, particularly the chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Pena. Gyllenhaal often plays more sensitive parts, and Pena has a side career doing supporting roles in outlandish comedies; they both incorporate those notes into these roles, making Taylor and Zavala touchingly human. When bad things happen, you believe they’re in danger because even at their best, they don’t act or sound like superheroes.

In his commentary, Ayer praises the “personality and intimacy” of self-filming, both on display here; found footage, when used this well, also liberates movies from stock storytelling. He can smash-cut from late-night carnage to the middle of a wedding sequence without the usual warm-ups, lead-ins, and exposition. If anything, Ayer could have taken the movie’s episodic structure further; the developing menace of drug-dealing gang members is exciting enough, but can’t match the movie’s detours, its treatment of characters who might have blended into the background. In another striking departure from the director’s past work, women have a place to shine in the movie, including America Ferrara and Cody Horn as another pair of young officers and Anna Kendrick, delightful as always, playing Taylor’s sweet girlfriend Janet.

But the movie’s best departure from formula remains the treatment of its leading men; so many cop movies utilize the idea of “buddies” for canned compare-contrast laughs. During that wedding sequence, where Taylor marries Janet, and an earlier scene at the quincinera celebration of Zavala’s cousin, you realize that the two cops aren’t just affectionate partners, but probably each other’s best friends in the world.

Perhaps because End of Watch is so loose and anecdotal, the bits and pieces that make up the disc’s deleted scenes reel add up: 45 minutes in total, including a big chunk of talking head interviews with Taylor and Zavala, none of which made the final cut. Ayer was wise to delete this, and bits of other scenes, especially later in the reel, feel more like additional coverage than true alternate takes. But the extra footage also underlines the excellent work of editor Dody Dorn in assembling the footage into a coherent film.

The Ayer commentary has some interesting notes about those techniques, though his apparently career-long request for authenticity enables the usual commentary obsession with filming locations. Ayer also sounds a little defensive of his South Central realism, talking up his own experiences in the area and the apparently endless number of real cops and gang members he knows, vaguely sourcing his authenticity. He does admit that the movie’s bad guys are sketched a bit broadly, and sounds conflicted when discussing the difficulty of upending convention before explaining that the movie needs the bad guys to be a little cartoony so the audience likes the heroes more. But despite its moments of familiarity, End of Watch does right by its subjects, its genre, and its much-maligned format.

RATING 6 / 10