Synopsis: Part found footage, part fly on the wall documentary, part standard cop drama, End of Watch follows the daily grind of two young police officers (Jake Gyllenhaal; Michael Pena) in South LA who are partners and friends, and what happens when they meet criminal forces greater than themselves
I am a sucker for cop dramas. Most of the time they are indistinguishable 45 minute procedurals with interchangeable characters. But that’s what I like. I can switch my brain off and play guess the bad guy (it’s normally the second guest character they introduce into the story). The reason I loved The Shield so much though was it was the first drama that really got into the nasty side of being a cop in the heart of Gangland Los Angeles. The camera put you on the shoulder of officers putting in doors and raiding drug dens full of trigger happy crooks, half naked ladies, stockpiles of weapons and the occasional mound of dismembered corpses. It took any glamour away from being a street cop. It set a standard for TV cop dramas that only the Wire has come close to matching for grit and grime.
End of Watch has done for cop movies what The Shield and The Wire did for cop TV shows. It has set a new standard.
In fact End of Watch shares a number of common factors with The Shield in both theme, style and story. Both deal with the idea of LAPD as an extended family with many of the same issues that normal, large families face. Both put the camera right in the thick of the action that makes you feel like you’re watching a badass episode of Cops. And both deal with the rising issue of Mexican Cartels seeping into Los Angeles and all of the increased brutal criminality that brings.
End of Watch focuses on two patrol officers, Brian Taylor (Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Pena) based in South Central Los Angeles. Every shift for them could be their last. As they point out, working in the toughest part of the city they see more action on one rotation than a lot of officers see in a whole career. The story is told through a mixture of first person camera work and traditional third person viewpoints.
The decision by Ayer to use both is refreshing. Using first person “found footage” as a way of telling a story was as first really interesting when films like The Blair Witch Project pioneered it. The problem with it is though, the more complex or elaborate the story or set pieces became the more convoluted the reasons become for people having a camera there at that moment to capture it. You end up just going “wait……who takes a video camera to the sandwich shop to eat lunch?” or more annoyingly occasionally going “wait…….if they’re all there who’s filming it?” THAT SHIT DRIVES ME CRAZY!!!.
End of Watch uses the exposition of Officer Taylor filming his shifts for a college project as a reason for the characters breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience, and to allow for some of the more intrusive camera work. Taylor’s project isn’t the sole purpose for the movie though and that means Ayer can shift to traditional camera work without having to manufacture a third person holding the camera so Taylor and Zavala can be in the same shot at the same time, or so they can be filmed alone.
There is plenty of action in End of Watch. The way the action is delivered though is what ratchets up the tension. Occasionally first person views are actually the viewpoint of the barrel of gun. You will literally never feel closeer to a bullet being fired without being next to one. This is police action for the Call of Duty generation. The opening sequence makes great use of a Cops style dashboard camera to play Taylor’s officer mantra during a car chase, which ends in such a way to leave you in no doubt who these guys are. When they respond to the distress call of a probationary officer who you have seen nervously trying to make her way through the previous shifts, your heart sinks with what they might turn up to.
It’s the times though when they’re not firing their guns that End of Watch really comes into it’s own and entertains the most. Anyone can film gang members engaged in a shootout with cops, with people running around shouting things like “I NEED BACKUP! WHERE’S MY GODDAMN BACKUP?!?” or “SCREW YOU PIG! YOU’LL NEVER TAKE ME ALIVE!!!!!!”. Most of the time though you never really get to know the officers. Any tension is more about you not wanting to be in that situation and imagining what it is like rather than feeling any sense of dread because you care about the characters.
Cops are notoriously hard to make 3-dimensional and sympathetic, even when they’re doing a great job in horrific circumstances. Most officers will tell you, regardless of where they work, that most of their time is spent in the car with their partner shooting the shit and talking about their problems. End of Watch succeeds in making you genuinely care about Taylor and Zavala because you see them at their most vulnerable. Not when they are under fire. But when they are together, bored in a car and talking about their wives, their girlfriends, their aspirations. Pranking each other. Being there at the most important parts of each others lives. The lives of their wives, girlfriends and children.
Gyllenhaal and Pena spent a lot of time with LA cops and a lot of time with each other in preparation for the roles. Much of the dialogue in the car is improvised and it shows. There is an easy camaraderie and sense of genuine friendship that makes the whole experience feel that much more personal. These guys could easily be your buddies. In a difference walk of life they could be you. For a large number of people watching the movie they are them. Normal people, doing extraordinary jobs, where they might not come home at the end of the day.
David Ayer grew up in South Central LA and he has a gift for writing stories about the shit-stick end of the Los Angeles gang culture and the grimy job of trying to police it. He has evidently spent time, either directly with or with people who have been, in and around the gangs he portrays in his movies. In Training Day the line where cops ended and crooks began was never clear, but no-one ever felt like a cartoon villain. There is a very clear line in End of Watch as to who is the good guy and who is the bad guy. While the bad guys are pushing the upper end of cartoon villainy I will bow to Ayer’s knowledge and previous track record as to the accuracy of their portrayal The fact that people like that exist outside of Hollywood screenwriters’ minds is quite possibly the scariest thing I have discovered in some time.
Training Day. which Ayer wrote but didn’t direct, was the best cop movie that I had seen before End of Watch, and for me is still in my top 3 along with French Connection. End of Watch now makes up that trio. Should have had some Oscar love.
Conclusion: Thanks to End of Watch I now need to buy a new couch because I clawed the arms off my current one. A must watch for anyone who has ever wondered why the cop that pulled them over for a broken tail-light may not always have been the happy bundle of customer service they think they should have been.
Director/Writer: David Ayer – Screenwriter turned writer/director who specialises in gritty LA based cop dramas. Prior to this hit a high water mark by writing Denzel Washington an Oscar winning character in Training Day.
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Pena, Anna Kendrick, Natalie Martinez, David Harbour, America Ferrera
- Captain Reese: An on-the-job shooting is still considered a homicide. It’s never an easy ride. If you do the right thing, I’ll always have your back. Do the wrong thing and cross me – I will personally throw you under the bus.
- Brian Taylor: It’s been two hours. We’re still waiting for the detectives to release the crime scene so we can go back on patrol.
Mike Zavala: Comfortable footwear. Policing is all about comfortable footwear.
- The lead characters in the movie were loosely based on real life LAPD Officers Charles Wunder and Jamie McBride. They were partners in Newton Division in the mid to late 90’s.
- As part of their training, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña spent five months doing 12-hour ride-alongs with on-duty LAPD officers. During Gyllenhaal’s first ride-along, he witnessed a murder.
- The word “fuck” is used 326 times, making it sixth in the all time profanity list
On DVD, BluRay and BlinkBox