End of Watch was written and directed by David Ayer, who has spent his entire filmmaking career exhibiting a keen interest in exploring the inner workings of the Los Angeles police department. In the past, Ayer wrote such films as SWAT, Training Day and Dark Blue, and directed Street Kings and Harsh Times. However, End of Watch is arguably Ayer’s greatest achievement to date. Using the popular found footage aesthetic, the film provides a realistic, gritty portrayal of both the danger and tedium of police work.
Brian Taylor (Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Peña) are LAPD officers who have developed a tight bond during their time as partners, spending their days thwarting the efforts of criminals and doing the daily rounds while keeping themselves entertained and sharing details of their lives. For a school film project, Brian begins using camcorders and hidden spy cams to capture their day-to-day exploits. However, during a routine assignment, the two officers uncover a human trafficking ring managed by a Mexican drug cartel. Though the Feds warn Brian and Mike about what they have gotten themselves into, the curious pair can’t resist delving further into the case. As a result, they become targeted by the malicious Mexican gang, who are determined to make the pair pay a steep price for putting their noses where they don’t belong.
The cartel stuff is more of a fringe conflict than anything else – End of Watch progresses without much of a plot, providing a slice-of-life portrayal as we ride along with Brian and Mike. On top of this, the film probes the personal lives of the officers, with Mike expecting a child while nursing a relationship with his wife (Martinez), and with Brian becoming involved with the sweet Janet (Kendrick). Such material heightens the picture’s scope, giving the characters further depth and raising the stakes.
Unlike such films as Paranormal Activity or Cloverfield, the found footage approach does not overwhelm the production. End of Watch is not entirely comprised of footage shot by the characters – rather, the “real” footage is used as an enhancement tool, supplementing the traditional camerawork to add a nice degree of authenticity. This allows us to get insight into events and tender character moments we would otherwise have learned about via impersonal captions. Truth is, the found footage gimmick only rarely works in a genuinely satisfying manner, and the familiar style is outright boring and too predictable at this point. Hence, a new spin is appreciated. On the other hand, though, the divide between Brian’s footage and the traditional film stuff is blurred, and you will often be left wondering whether you’re watching one or the other. It would have been more effective if the found footage looked like consumer camcorder footage, while the rest of the material carried a slicker polish.
End of Watch‘s most valuable assets, easily, are Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña, who are superb as Brian and Mike. Stripped of theatrics, the two feel credible and unforced, and share a camaraderie that seems remarkably organic. It’s still hard to shake the thought that these guys are recognisable Hollywood performers, but the duo do their best to sell the illusion. Even the supporting players are remarkable here. Anna Kendrick is down-to-earth and endearing as Brian’s love interest, while Natalie Martinez makes the most of her role as Mike’s wife. Most impressive, though, is Frank Grillo as the Sarge. Funny and natural, Grillo seems like the type of blue-collar worker you’d encounter in a police station. The interplay between all of the characters is spot-on. It feels like we’re watching real footage of family and friends who’ve known each other for years, which bolters the comedy and the drama.
Ultimately, End of Watch is a celebration of the brotherhood which exists between the men and women in blue. Police officers are fundamentally a dysfunctional family who joke around and support one another as a way to cope with this cruel, unforgiving world of frightening criminals. The film has received flack for its final outcome, but this reviewer was left moved, devastated and satisfied. A deus ex machina works extremely well in the very last scene (bear in mind, people can survive a lot of gunshot wounds as long as they promptly receive proper medical assistance), and the picture closes with a comedic outtake that reinforces the camaraderie between the central characters and heightens the sense of tragedy.
David Ayer does not exactly tell us anything new about police work with End of Watch, but that’s not the point. The found footage perspective gives the flick a realistic slant, allowing us to see the world through the eyes of the officers who endure scary situations on a consistent basis. The climax, in which Brian and Mike are alone with just their side-arms and instincts in an unfamiliar environment surrounded by hostiles, is petrifying and unnervingly visceral, far more intense than anything glimpsed in the latest Paranormal Activity film. Thus, while there are better cop movies out there, End of Watch is one of a select number which truly conveys how harrowing it is to be a policeman.