David Ayer, the writer-director behind End of Watch, has made a name for himself with gritty L.A. police/crime dramas: he penned the scripts for Training Day and Dark Blue before making the excellent, underrated Harsh Times (which features one of Christian Bale’s best performances) and the disappointing James Ellroy adaptation Street Kings.
Besides being set in Los Angeles, and revolving around police and crime, each of these films – but especially Training Day, Harsh Times, and now End of Watch – shares a running theme: male camaraderie. They’re also superbly acted, and strikingly similar in composition; it says a lot that the most memorable sequences from each of these movies simply feature the two leads conversing, usually while on a leisurely drive.
Ayer gets a lot of mileage from his actors: Bale and Freddy Rodriguez were dynamite in Harsh Times, and Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña are at their best here (and while Antoine Fuqua deserves credit for directing Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke to Oscar-winning and Oscar-nominated performances in Training Day, Ayer crafted the characters and their dialogue).
Acting is what elevates End of Watch from generic police drama into the realm of something special. There’s memorable supporting work by Frank Grillo as the sergeant and David Harbour and America Ferrera as fellow officers. But it’s Gyllenhaal and Peña, as street cops Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala, that really make the film: their performances are startlingly naturalistic and easygoing, and reveal a real chemistry between the actors, who spent months together on ride-alongs with the LAPD in preparation for their roles.
Taylor and Zavala are partners on the force, but share a bond that goes much deeper; they’re best friends, and an integral part of each other’s personal lives. The film follows the pair over an unspecified (but extended) period of time, as Taylor develops a long-term relationship with Janet (Anna Kendrick), and Zavala has a baby with wife Gabby (Natalie Martinez).
They’re also cops, of course, and much of the film feels like a highlight reel of their exploits. For the longest time, a tangible plotline refuses to develop, though we can sense it lurking in the background as the film cuts to a group of Latino gangbangers. Like a beefed-up episode of Cops, we follow our leads as they make an arrest at a traffic stop, rescue children from a burning house, or stumble upon a grisly murder scene.
The reality is heightened by the filmmaking, which kinda-sorta makes an effort to be a ‘found footage’ film: Taylor is an aspiring filmmaker, shooting everything with a handheld camera and hooking himself and his partner up with hidden devices. Beware some especially shaky camerawork that threatens to cause motion sickness (still, it’s not as bad as The Hunger Games).
And that’s the one real flaw of End of Watch: the found footage angle is an unnecessary gimmick that, at some point, the filmmakers themselves just give up on. There’s the occasional phantom POV shot here and there for the first 80 minutes, but by the climax every shot is taken from a non-existent POV. That’s fine, but an inordinate amount of time is spent on incorporating the camerawork into the plot when it should have just been a behind-the-scenes stylistic decision.
Shaky-cam and all, End of Watch is an especially realistic, gritty police drama that features some taut action and terrific performances from its two leads. Ayer isn’t exactly exploring new ground here, but he knows the territory inside and out and delivers a memorable portrait of life on the force.