David Ayer makes a stunning return to the world of directing with End of Watch which may well be the best cop film in years.
Ayer’s last directorial effort was the underwhelming Street Kings (2008), a film that ultimately failed to do anything audiences hadn’t seen before and better. For the longest time it seemed Ayer’s career was haunted by his writing credit on Training Day (2001), a film which did dirty cops doing dirty deeds in a way that hadn’t been so enjoyable since Keitel was running about coked up and breaking faces in Bad Lieutenant. Try as he might Ayer simply couldn’t deliver on the punch that the statement “From the Creators of Training Day” promises cinema goers. Then End of Watch came along to tell us that lightning can strike twice.
From the get go this is a film that lets you know when the action happens, it happens viscerally: A striking dash-cam opening sequence that plays out like the most exciting and well narrated episode of Cops you’ve ever seen. It’s here that we get our first glimpse of Officers Brian Taylor and Miguel Zavala (Gyllenhall and Peña) doing what they do best: being one of the most likeable and believable cop duos in recent memory. Even during the tense opening car chase the sound of Taylor and Zavala’s constant back and forth is audible beneath the scream of sirens. I would be more than surprised if the dialogue was entirely scripted, there’s no trace of forced chemistry here and you really do feel like you are taking a ride along with two best friends who also happen to be top notch cops. Furthermore there is far more humour to be found in their ribbing than in your garden-variety Apatow/Ferrel improv-fest. If anything the film could do with more of these moments, it’s one of fewer and fewer films that doesn’t outstay it’s welcome as far as the running time is concerned.
In terms of performances go you are in safe hands, Gyllenhall seems to get better with every cinematic venture and here is no exception while Peña goes about showing that he is almost criminally underused by the industry. The two are ably supported by the rest of the cast, from the always delightful Anna Kendrick playing Gyllenhall’s better half to Frank Grillo as his boss, everybody is on top form.
One of the main concerns I had going in to End of Watch was the found-footage element shown in the trailers. Found footage in general has run its course by this point, and the tropes contained in each incarnation are so overused that it’s hard not to be pulled out of the film when you hear, for example, the intrepid cameraman shouting loudly about why they simply must film the zombie apocalypse or alien invasion et cetera. Fortunately End of Watch avoids the worst of this by employing a successful combination of both handheld and conventional filming, and while I would make the argument that less is infinitely more in respect to first person filming it must be said that when used here it does a great job of enhancing the intimacy, and by extension the intense tension, that permeates the film. If the industry must continue to employ such a style it would do well to follow the example set by this and Peter Jackson’s District 9, which used a similar method.
End of Watch is at its core a cops and robbers story, albeit one of the most human portrayals of cops I can recall (Gyllenhall and Peña did plenty of ride-alongs and police exercises to character-up for this film, and it shows). There isn’t a hint of corruption or a mention of internal affairs, you simply have the good guys and the bad guys. And how very very bad they are. There’s an almost palpable sense of foreboding that builds throughout the film, and with each each jump from home life to the patrol car there is a very real sense that something horrible is going to happen. The crew on this film have done their homework, every encounter is laden with the perilous uncertainty that must be a part of daily life for officers in South Central LA.
If this film has one failing it is that it spends too much time on delving into Gyllenhall’s character at the expense of Peña’s. This is a minor gripe as Peña never feels like a sidekick, the themes of brotherhood are too strong, but it does prevent his Zavala from connecting to the audience as fully as Gyllenhall’s Taylor.
End of Watch is a must see, not just for fans of cop movies but fans of cinema in general.
End of Watch (2012), directed by David Ayer, is distributed on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK by StudioCanal, Certificate 15.