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Non-Review Review: End of Watch

For its first two thirds, End of Watch is a rather novel examination of the routine of the boys in blue who patrol X-13, the most notorious district within Los Angeles’ notorious South Central. Centring on two police officers, Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala, it offers a portrayal of the Los Angeles Police Department that feels almost novel. Rather than centring on the city’s infamous racial tensions, or the allegations of corruption within the force, End of Watch offers a candid and insightful examination of what an average day on the beat might look like, helped along by natural interplay between leads Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña.

The movie runs into problems with its third act, when it opts to abandon its naturalistic, almost documentary, approach to these officers and their world, forcing a climactic confrontation that never really feels like it entirely belongs.

Arresting drama…

Director David Ayer makes some interesting choices in shooting the film. In an approach that is both the film’s most interesting structural element, yet also its most distracting, he opts to feature a lot of the film in a “found footage” style. The framing device is that Taylor is filming his daily routine for his “art elective” at law school – film studies. Brian’s nightly education is never broached again, even though the film covers a fairly substantial period of time, and it seems strange that nobody mentions either his film-making course or (perhaps more relevant to his job) his evening law course.

More than that, though, it raises all sorts of questions. Can Brian really show any of this to his class? Can he film other officers and suspects without their consent. The implications of a cop recording his routine are raised by fellow officers, but blithely dismissed by Brian. “Two words: erase button.” We wonder what the department’s policy on it is – he is “verbally counselled”about it once, but is that really all that would come of it? Surely wearing a camera on his pocket must be against some sort of regulation? These questions would be easy enough to ignore if the movie didn’t linger on them.

Shot authentically…

Indeed, it’s made clear that other characters are also recording their actions. In one of the movie’s clunkier subplots – but one that leads directly to the clunky finalé – it’s revealed that a hispanic gang is recording their exploits. Given the fact that these seem to be fairly successful gangbangers, it seems strange that so many would volunteer to be recorded – you’d imagine they’d at least put on their masks before pressing record. Perhaps the film intends to say something about how we’re all connected, but it’s never really successfully raised.

At another point, we see late night infra-red footage of a Mexican cartel unambiguously ordering an assassination. There are subtitles. However, this information seems only to be imparted to the audience, despite the fact that there’s a United States watermark at the bottom of the frame – implying that  this recording came from official sources. You wonder why nobody does anything about this admittedly massive hit that is taken out. Again, this wouldn’t be a problem except that the film goes out of its way to assure us that is some official recording taken from somewhere official.

Taylor-made for him…

You’ll notice that I said that “a lot” of the film is in the style of found footage. Frequently the camera cuts to shots that are impossible given the layout of the scene. We get some establishing shots – not just of the police car (which could, plausibly, have comes from a helicopter), but also of Los Angeles itself. Indeed, one sweeping shot through the skyscrapers looks absolutely stunning, but strangely out of place. These shots that could not have come from any camera within the scene suggest that Ayer might have been better served to adopt this sort of tight and close and dirty style, but without the “found footage” conceit.

That said, the approach does bring its fair share of benefits. It makes things feel a bit closer than they might ordinarily seem. It also provides a vehicle for the characters to feel more human. While there’s little plot driving the first (and strongest) two thirds of the film, the running cameras set-up allows for the movie to build characters and to follow our leads on inquiries that wouldn’t necessarily be seen in a tighter-plotted film.

At a dead end…

At its best, End of Watch feels like a “day in the life” following the officers randomly from case to case, giving us an opportunity to get to know Taylor and Zavala along the way. It feels almost novel, given that the predominant portrayal of the Los Angeles Police Department has been somewhat spotty. Whether due to the influence of noir or several high-profile historical instances of corruption, films like L.A. Confidential, Rampart and Training Day haven’t always shown the brightest side of the boys in blue.

End of Watch, on the other hand, seems like an affectionate exploration of the world these people occupy, and the mundane heroism of their everyday encounters. After one particularly heroic moment, Taylor asks his partner, “Do you feel like a hero?” A moment later, he wonders, “What does being a hero feel like?”It’s these relatively simple, day-to-day interactions and split-second decisions that work best. Taylor and Zavala don’t have some grand objective.

In fine form…

There’s no overarching goal or target from their point of view. Taylor admits to harbouring intentions be becoming a detective, but it’s not at the front of his mind. That’s not to pretend that End of Watch is a documentary-style look at a typical police shift. Taylor notes that some officers can go their whole careers without firing a weapon or getting involved in a car chase. “Here that’s just one half of your shift,” Zavala quips. However, the first two thirds of the movie feel somewhat candid in how the officers encounter and deal with these daily challenges.

The most startling moments feel like they could come from real life – they aren’t couched in sensationalism. The brightly painted houses in the ghetto often hold rotting and decaying interiors. Sometimes the contents hidden away in these houses seems a little exaggerated – one such trip reveals something that looks like it came from 24. However, the most powerful encounters are those suggesting the true banality of evil.

Out of the blue…

Early on, Taylor and Zavala investigate the case of two missing kids. I won’t reveal how the matter resolves itself, but it manages to feel completely horrible and sadly quite probable. It’s not too difficult to imagine that there are many more cases like that, and it’s one of the strongest moments of the film. It’s that sort of moment that is undermined by the somewhat clunky final act.

The final act of the film suffers because it seems to feel the need to push things to a head. While the first two-thirds allowed our cops to engage with the sort of day-to-day randomness you might find on the beat, the third act suddenly elevates them from two standard patrolmen to the leads in a more conventional buddy cop film. They lose that common touch and that humanity that makes Taylor and Zavala so interesting, becoming almost celebrities themselves.

Being taken for a ride?

It’s not about two guys in uniform doing their job, it’s about two celebrities fighting for themselves. It undermines a lot of the solid work that came before, and it almost seems quite cheap and exploitative. All the interest and good will fostered by the candid-camera approach and the witty banter between the leads seems to be lost in a fairly standard action movie climax. The movie almost redeems itself towards the end, teasing an ending that would be quite daring for a movie like this – but it pulls back at the last second and compromises.

It’s a shame, because the first two thirds of the film afford us the chance to get to know Taylor and Zavala as something approaching real people. Gyllenhaal and Peña have this natural chemistry that makes their interactions delightfully engaging to watch. Peña in particular has a wonderful knack for storytelling. He’s really an actor who deserves a much higher profile than he currently has, and he makes Zavala particularly fascinating – despite the fact that the movie is more strongly focused on Taylor. (It’s Taylor’s camera that drive the plot, his courtship with Janet that is documented, his inquiries that push the pair towards the climax.)

Everything’s A-OK-47 here…

The supporting cast is also pretty superb. Michael Harbour is great as the resident hard-ass cop, who is still afforded some small measure of respect for the time and the work that he does. Anna Kendrick manages to flesh out a role that would otherwise just be window dressing but, despite her charm, feels strangely wasted on a tiny role. The movie’s style does allow us the opportunity to see the supporting cast developed as three-dimensional characters, rather than simply as wheels within a larger plotting framework.

That is, perhaps, why the movie’s plot feels like the weakest link. I’d be much happier if the final third of the movie just followed the two leads through a few more random encounters, continuing to offer an examination of two cops in the most dangerous part of town. It’s the attempt to fashion something that felt strangely naturalistic and organic into something far mor mundane and conventional that feels like a wasted opportunity.

Worth a shot?

End of Watch is still worth a watch, but it feels a lot less than it might have been. The freshness and intrigue of the first two acts feels squandered by an overly conventional third act, and the movie suffers from drawing attention to its nature as a found footage film. Still, Gyllenhaal and Peña work well together, and there’s enough to give the movie the slightest edge over more conventional cop films.

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2 Responses

  1. I’m sorry but that movie was a 8 out of 10 and not a simple “End of Watch is still worth a watch”. I felt the plot definitely made you have a personal connection to the 2 mains. While yes, there was a bit of predictability that their continued crossing of paths with the cartel was going to lead to some big blow out I felt myself rooting for Gyllenhaal and Peña. Their Antics and genuine care for each other was done well enough to care.

    In my opinion the one thing I definitely agreed with was the lack of logic behind why the Cartel hit squad would allow themselves to be filmed unmasked committing incriminating acts.

    • I can see what you’re saying and I think, broadly speaking, we agree. That scene with the missing child is powerful stuff.

      That said, I think I just found the flaws more serious than you did. We both agree the cartel plot is a little hokey, but it detracted from the film more for me than for you.

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