Movies frequently depict the most dangerous moments in a cop’s career, but what of the bits in between? The driving around in patrol cars, the routine house calls, the briefings and monotonous paperwork? This is something writer and director David Ayer brings to End Of Watch, a movie that functions as part character study, part drama, and part nail-biting thriller.
Ayer’s no stranger to cop movies or thrillers, having written the likes of The Fast And The Furious, S.W.A.T and Training Day. But where those films were tautly plotted, End Of Watch is looser, aiming for a dynamic sense of realism that’s accentuated by its found-footage trappings.
Brian Taylor and Mike ‘Mike’ Zavala (respectively, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña) are two ordinary cops on patrol in South Central Los Angeles. For a college project, Brian decides to take a camera on duty with him to capture the average occurrences on the beat.
After an electrifying opening chase sequence viewed entirely from a patrol car’s hood-mounted camera, we gradually learn more about the two lawmen. Brian’s an ex-marine who’s keen to climb the ranks in the force, and he’s on the cusp of settling down with his new girlfriend Judith (Anna Kendrick). His partner Mike’s married to his childhood sweetheart, devoted to his job, and full of amusing anecdotes. While patroling urban LA’s crime-ridden streets, Brian and Mike pass the time by winding each other up and sharing stories, as if to distract themselves from the reality that, when a call comes in, they’re never quite sure what the outcome will be.
This is End Of Watch’s biggest triumph, in fact: the unpredictability of life as an honest cop is perfectly conveyed. Routine cases sometimes prove to be anything but, and the searches of apparently ordinary houses reveal all kinds of horrific atrocities. Even pulling over a vehicle is fraught with potential danger. We’re always keenly aware that Brian and Mike live in an unpredictable universe, and their duties quickly take on a tense, deadly air.
The tension’s heightened further when they stumble upon the operations of a Mexican drug and human trafficking cartel; seizing a huge quantity of cash, drugs, and ominously, a gold-plated AK (“Hey, it’s Liberace’s gun!”), the pair become the target of vicious gang members out for revenge.
In his latest outing as director, Ayer wrings a huge amount of value from his movie’s documentary-style approach, even though it isn’t strictly speaking a found-footage movie as it initially appears. He cuts between the viewpoints of the cameras clipped to Brian and Mike’s uniforms, but he also sneaks in establishing shots and moments where the camera appears to be mounted on the barrel of a gun. In its best sequences, End Of Watch exerts all the hold and tension of a well-made horror movie. During the course of their everyday beat, Brian and Mike encounter all kinds of hideousness, and the found-footage gimmick gives these moments genuine power.
Flashes of brutal violence are contrasted with engaging drama or comically mundane police procedure; after apprehending one felon, Brian and Mike are shown gloomily filling in forms back at the precinct. Even a horrific attack ends not with shock on the part of the characters, but a conversation about who will sort out all the paperwork. These are moments that enrich the film, giving it a patina and sense of realism – it’s clear that, before typing a word of his script, Ayer did his homework.
The criminal element is served less well. A gang of Mexicans led by someone called Big Evil (Maurice Compte) are thinly drawn, and spend much of the film cruising around in a people carrier and talking in an almost indecipherable pattern that’s at least 90 per cent expletives. They also dress like N-Dubz, which is a little distracting.
A greater insight into the gang members’ lives – and how they’ve become desperate enough to commit some of their appalling crimes – may have provided a little more balance, but in reality, this is Gyllenhaal and Peña’s film. Their performances are impeccable, and their delivery of Ayer’s witty dialogue is near faultless.
Ayer’s already proved his worth as a screenwriter in numerous movies, and End Of Watch is an extremely impressive directorial outing. He invests the streets of South Central LA with a claustrophobic, sweaty atmosphere akin to John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13. It’s a harsh, unforgiving place, where potential danger lurks behind every door.
End Of Watch is out in the UK on the 23rd November.
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