David Ayer’s End of Watch starts out in a barrage of contradictory camera angles intended to punch up the multiple shades of grey of being an LAPD beat cop. A video diary is being composed by Officer Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his partner Mike Zavala (Michael Pena), and perhaps it’s only right we should be sifting through fragments: Taylor and Zavala will themselves come to pick up the pieces – the empty shell casings and severed body parts – of a turf war that’s broken out between the city’s black and Latino gangs.
Another of those found-footage movies, End of Watch (pun presumably intended) is aiming to do for the cop drama what the low-cost, high-profit Chronicle did earlier this year for the teenage superhero flick. Again, you’re reminded one of the advantages this form presents filmmakers with is that these images don’t strictly have to look good, or follow the usual rules of cinematic continuity. Taylor and Zavala have cameras on their dashboard looking in, on their bonnet looking out, and on their collars whenever they’re required to shake it all about.
This digital hokey-cokey extends to Taylor’s new squeeze (Anna Kendrick), whose first move upon waking is to find a camcorder and record a confessional for her sleeping beau; incredibly, it even extends to the gang members, who blithely tape themselves shooting people and taking contracts out on our heroes, a move even the most inexperienced public defendant might advise against.
As Cops and Police, Camera, Action made clear, what this set-up can do is give an entertainment the benefit of immediacy. Ayer, who wrote Training Day before directing a run of similar law-enforcement tales (Harsh Times, Street Kings), knows how to construct a tense stop-and-search, and his film is pretty good on what it is to drive grouchily around on a late shift, and then have to run into a burning property and play hero cop, or to stage a raid on a building in which you’re sure somebody has died, and the killer may still be close by.
Yet there’s a sense the likable Gyllenhaal and Pena are here more as anchormen than policemen, recruited to give a shapeless mass of footage a degree of focus. Between them, the actors create a joshing, winning chemistry: two more perspectives, keeping an eye out for one another. What’s been constructed around them, however, feels perilously gimmicky, using these recording devices to cut around or evade the material’s inherent shifts in tone. When Ayer’s camera finally defaults to a shotgun-barrel POV, we appear to be watching the cinema, still worried by the threat posed by immersive console games, surrendering to its rival outright.
End of Watch is more concerned with the experience of being an LAPD officer than it is in telling us a story about the same, which is not a crime. But compare it to the vastly more complex French procedural Polisse, and you spot how Ayer is condescending to 16-year-old Doom aficionados in breaking the cop experience down into what one character calls “the three basic foodgroups”: money, drugs and guns – or births, marriages and deaths.
“Are you good?” is the question these cops ask themselves at the beginning and the end of each working day. Ayer’s film just about holds together as a taut two-hour viewing experience, but in its leading men’s cutesy asides to camera, its custard-pie gags, and its reassuring finale, it keeps asking us the exact same question, where the truly great cop movies – from The French Connection to L.A. Confidential – rolled on through their material like gangbusters, confident their audience would keep up.
(MovieMail, November 2012)
End of Watch screens on C4 tonight at 11.10pm.