The most obvious thing to notice about “End of Watch” is that the whole movie looks like it was put through a tumble dryer. Even in calm, dialogue driven moments, the found footage cinematography is as erratic, lopsided, messy and claustrophobic as any movie I’ve ever seen.
But “End of Watch” is an interesting film, one that rings true in its shoptalk and streetwise mentality. It’s a shame director David Ayer had to add this cinematic gimmick to a story and characters that already feel very real.
“End of Watch” is a buddy cop drama that plays more like behind the scenes vignettes in the vein of “COPS” than a typical genre picture. It follows two beat officers in South Central Los Angeles, Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena), on their day-to-day patrol as they slowly become the unsuspecting enemies of a prominent Mexican drug cartel.
Their immediate difference from most movie cops is their honor. The pair of them are exemplary officers, and an opening monologue by Gyllenhaal gives the job a new level of profundity that deems them more than protectors of the law. They go about their job with a love for their work, explaining how paperwork is the lifeblood of their career or showing respect for their superior officers. They address the camera directly about the procedure of a house call to the point that the film feels like a training movie. It is so much a movie about respecting an officer of the law that when Zavala fights someone man to man and lets him off easy, the movie gives us a scene of the same gangbanger saying that these cops are “straight up gangsta.”
And yet the common tropes associated with cop movies, like justice, honor and morality: all these things take a backseat to the idea that being part of the police is like being part of a family, a brotherhood.
More so than a cop movie, “End of Watch” is a bromance. Its best moments are casual, joshing conversations in the front seat of the cruiser between Taylor and Zavala about girls, the difference between Latinos and whites, sex stories and whatever else might come up between two bros. Gyllenhaal and Pena have such wonderful chemistry together. When they get in that cop car, they’re brothers. No one understands them better.
I think cops might see themselves in the camaraderie of these two characters, even if they don’t believe the extent of some of their crime scenes. Not all of the film is badassery. There are the moments inside the station and waiting for hours as the detectives wrap up that pepper these officers’ lives.
But then there’s that damned camera. Taylor pins two spy cameras to his shirt pocket and to Zavala’s, but the movie has cameras everywhere, on the dashboard, in Taylor’s hand, in the criminals’ hands, and all of them are jostled upside down and in every direction to no end. Later the film turns into a lame POV, first person shooter video game, and we’re denied a single, coherent wide shot or proper lighting. I hate that this is what digital cinematography has become. It’s not getting us any closer to reality by turning the camera on its head and not showing us what’s going on.
That’s what is so irritating about “End of Watch.” Ayer’s pacing is delicate and suspenseful, but he spoils the moment with his vigilante journalism style. His characters are likeable and true, but they’re occasionally insufferable frat boys without something more interesting to say than a string of four letter words (the movie probably sets a new record for f*ck and motherf*ckers). It’s the honorable cop story we should have but the indecipherable movie we shouldn’t.
2 ½ stars