End Of Watch fits snuggly into writer-turned-director David Ayer’s crime movie formula from Training Day and Harsh Times. Take a crime movie premise that initially seems intriguing, populate it with interesting actors, tease out some fairly dark drama through the set up, toss in a few fantastic set pieces, and then slowly waste it all as the film becomes increasingly conventional in a race to the finish line. Maybe Ayer just gets bored while writing his screenplays and wants them finished quickly. Perhaps he’s constantly in a push-pull battle with the studio over content and tends to buckle on the finale. Regardless, his movies always see, to peter out towards the end and leave viewers with mixed emotions of elation and disappointment. There’s always the hope that he’ll lock onto one concept and follow it all the way through to the climax, but sadly End Of Watch isn’t that movie. Maybe next time.
Ayer’s latest is an ode to the most badass, rule breaking members of LA’s boys in blue. His heroes are Jake Gyllenhaal and the endlessly underrated Michael Pena, a pair of young cops who gleefully accept the most dangerous assignments in South Central. These ain’t your daddy’s paperwork-loving coppers. Nope, these guys live to get their hands dirty busting up drug rackets and bashing in heads when necessary (within the limits of the law of course). They’re also big time buddies, exchanging philosophies and trash talk whenever they aren’t in on some action. For some reason, Gyllenhaal decides to record everything they do via small handheld cameras, cameras pinned to their shirts, cameras stuck in their car, and apparently a team of cameramen following them wherever they go (Ayer is not consistent in the found footage conceit).
Between bouts of arguing with stern superior officers who just don’t know what it’s like on the streets (man), they also start to inch their way into the middle of a Mexican drug cartel’s plans to take over the city. They find gangbangers carrying golden machine guns, dozens of people in cages as part of a human trafficking ring, and a house full of body parts. Clearly this new gang means business, but it just ain’t enough to scare these two supercops. They are going to take them on head-first. Oh and Gyllenhaal finds/marries the love of his life (Anna Kendrick) and Michael Pena has a baby. Why? So that the stakes are raised just in case one of them dies, silly!
First the good news, Ayer stumbled onto a fantastic leading duo in Gyllenhaal and Pena. The pair share incredible chemistry and following extensive training, actually feel like genuine police officers. The shaved head definitely helps dilute Gyllenhaal’s movie star image and he does the tough guy act reasonably well. Pena is even better. As he proved in supporting roles in Jody Hill’s Observe And Report and Eastbound And Down, he’s got an ear for naturalistic dialogue and a knack for character comedy that never stretches into schtick. Pena has an acting talent higher than his pay grade and if End Of Watch accomplishes nothing else, hopefully it’ll get him in a few more movies. He’s an actor to keep an eye on. As usual, Ayer also stages a few great set pieces as well. In this particular, two raids on houses that uncover shocking secrets really deliver on the hard R action-movie-via-COPS tone that he was clearly striving for. In fact, whenever the movie simply follows Gyllenhaal and Pena doing their job and getting in trouble, the film offers gritty entertainment with a comedic edge.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of things that prevent End Of Watch from delivering on the promise of those effective sequences. First off, Ayer’s found footage aesthetic is a joke. The movie jumps to impossible camera angles that could never been caught on the fly early and often. It gets to the point where it’s distracting whenever it feels like Gyllenhaal is filming the movie and the whole conceit should have just been dropped. At this point, audiences understand and appreciate what a handheld video aesthetic means. There’s no need to force faux-documentary conventions if you have no intention of using them. Of course, that’s just an irritating directing choice. They real problems have more to do with the writing. Pena and Gyllenhaal are given love interests so generic that they shouldn’t even have names. They are there just to give the guys something nice to talk about to win audience empathy and provide potential tragedy if one of them is killed. They are useless characters and should have been dropped, particularly when the considerable talents of an actress like Anna Kendrick are completely wasted.
While the unseen threat of the drug cartel is always frightening, the few Latino gangbangers who do get screentime (and are apparently filming all of their illegal activities for no apparent reason) are cardboard street thugs composed of postures and gang signs without characterization. It’s hard to be scared of characters who are just there to be evil in a movie that should in theory be defined by realism. Unless Ayer planned to have them say more than how much they hate cops and like killing people, they should have been cut out. A looming gang presence that was never seen would have been more effective. Without getting into spoiler territory, Ayer also completely drops the ball on the ending. He takes his characters and story to a compelling place that hits a natural end point that would have been a real shocker for a mainstream movie. Then just when the screen goes black and you think the filmmaker actually took a risk, a coda comes on that spoils everything. I won’t say any more in case you plan on seeing the movie, but brace yourself for disappointment as things wrap up.
Now, even though there are far more elements of this movie that I have to complain about that those I praise, I can’t dismiss End Of Watch outright. Ayer may have driven his movie off the road, but at least he did some interesting things along the way. Gyllenhaal and Pena are a great team and huge chunks of the movie following them on the job are quite entertaining. The problems that pile up simply take what’s compelling make it depressingly mediocre. The movie never really becomes an outright disaster, it just descends into Hollywood cop movie clichés and tedium. That’s the thing with Ayer, ultimately he’s a mainstream filmmaker and the fact that he works anything dark, compelling, or realistic into a Hollywood product puts him above the pack. It’s just a shame that he’s never been able to go off the populist rails for an entire film. I’m sure he’s got it in him as everything he’s made has flashes of crime movie brilliance. He’s definitely not a director to outright hate, he’s just an underachiever with promise who hasn’t pulled it all together yet. Hopefully, that will change one day. Certainly not with this movie, but maybe some day.
Gyllenhaal and Pena have chemistry to spare and really dig into their "good cops on a mission roles." Writer/director David Ayer also provides some good action set pieces for them to dig into.
The found footage conceit is all over the place and should have been dropped. The love interests are pitifully generic, and the villains are one-note. Any grit or realism that Ayer establishes early on vanishes by the finale.