End of Watch perfectly embodies writer-turned-director David Ayer’s crime movie formula (Training Day, Harsh Times, etc). You take a basic crime movie premise, twist it initially in an intriguing way, populate it with talented actors, tease out some unexpectedly dark drama, toss in a few brutal set pieces, and then slowly let it all slip away as the film becomes increasingly conventional in a race to the finish line. Perhaps Ayer just gets bored while writing his screenplays and submits to conventions to finish them quickly. Maybe he’s gets involved in fights with the studio over content and has to buckle on the finale. Regardless, his movies inevitably peter out towards the end and leave viewers with a mix of elation and disappointment. There’s always a chance that he’ll lock onto one concept and follow it all the way through, but sadly End of Watch isn’t that movie.
Ayer’s latest flick is a love letter to the hard-as-hell members of LA’s police force. His heroes are Jake Gyllenhaal and the obscenely underrated Michael Pena, two young cops happily accept all of the most dangerous beat assignments in South Central. These ain’t your daddy’s paperwork-loving boys in blue though. Nope, these guys love getting their hands dirty while taking on drug rackets and even bashing the occasional head when necessary (within the limits of the law, obviously). They’re also good times buddies, who are never more than a few minutes away from dropping some law fighting philosophy or trash talk. For reasons never made clear, Gyllenhaal decides to film everything they do via small handheld video cameras, micro-cameras pinned to their shirts, cameras stuck in their squad car, and apparently a team of cameramen following them wherever they go (the found footage conceit is not consistent).
When they aren’t arguing with angry superiors who just don’t understand life on the streets (man), they inch their way towards discovering a pretty serious Mexican drug cartel’s plan to take over the city. They pull over street kids carrying golden machine guns, discover dozens of people in cages as part of a human trafficking plot, and stumble into a house filled with freshly chopped up body parts. Clearly this cartel means business, but that kind of criminal insanity won’t scare off these two supercops. Nope, this dynamic duo is going to take them on headfirst, even if they die in the process. Oh yeah and Gyllenhaal finds/marries the love of his life (Anna Kendrick) and Michael Pena has a baby during the same period. Why? To increase the stakes on the off chance one of them dies, silly!
So, good news first: Ayer found a fantastic leading man combo in Gyllenhaal and Pena. The pair have easy chemistry and following extensive pre-production police training, they actually feel like genuine officers. Gyllenhaal’s manages to dial down his movie star image decently and he does the tough guy act fairly well. However, the MVP is Pena. The guy showed a knack for spitting out naturalistic dialogue and backdoor character comedy in Jody Hill’s Observe and Report and Eastbound and Down, and delivers on that promise in a dramatic role flavored with comedy here. Pena is a talent who needs more attention and if End of Watch accomplishes nothing else, hopefully it’ll get him some more work. Ayer also whips up a few solid set pieces for action/thriller fans. In particular, he stages two raids on houses that uncover shocking secrets that really deliver the hard R action-movie-via-COPS vibe that the filmmaker was clearly striving for. Whenever the movie abandons the narrative to simply follow Gyllenhaal and Pena doing their job and causing trouble, the movie offers gritty entertainment with a comedic edge as promised.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of things going on in End of Watch that detract from those modest goals. The most obvious failed element is the found footage structure that Ayer barely bothers to follow. From the first scene, he cuts from character-driven cameras to impossible camera angles that could never been caught off the cuff. Very quickly, it becomes distracting whenever it seems like the characters are actually filming the movie and the whole found footage concept should have been dropped. Yes, it helps force a little realism onto the material, but at this point audiences understand and appreciate the handheld video aesthetic looks like. There’s no need to force faux-documentary onto the material to sell the look. We get it. Now, that’s just an irritating directing choice. The film’s real deadly problems are in the script. Gyllenhaal and Pena have love interests so generic that might as well not have names. They are included entirely as a writing device to win empathy and provide potential tragedy. As characters, they’re useless and should have been dropped, particularly when wasting the talent/time of an actress like Anna Kendrick.
When Ayer keeps the drug cartel as an unseen threat, it’s always frightening. Sadly, the few Latino gangsta who do get screentime (and are apparently videotape their illegal adventures for some reason) are cardboard street thugs made up of postures and gang signs rather than relatable characterization. It’s hard to be disturbed by generic evil characters when the movie that contains them strives so hard for realism. A looming gang presence without a face would have been far more effective than a handful of stereotypes who only talk about hating cops and killing people. Without delving into spoilers, Ayer screws up the ending. He takes the movie to an interesting natural end point that would have been a real shocker for a mainstream movie and then just when it appears that the filmmaker actually took a risk, a coda is tacked on that spoils everything. I won’t say anything further, but brace yourself for disappointment when the credits role.
Even though there’s plenty to complain about in End of Watch, the movie can’t be completely dismissed. Ayer may have driven off the road, but at least he did some good along the way. Gyllenhaal and Pena are a great team and simply watching them on the job can be quite entertaining. The problems are all associated with watching a compelling concept descend into mediocrity. It’s never a full on disaster, Ayer just doesn’t deliver on his promises. That’s the thing with the writer/director, he’s ultimately a mainstream filmmaker and the fact that he sneaks any darkly compelling material into a studio product at all ranks him above the pack of Hollywood hacks. It’s just a bummer that he’s never been able to abandon his populist instincts for an entire film. I’m sure he’s got that in him if only because every project he’s made shows flashes of crime movie brilliance. This isn’t a director to outright hate, he’s merely an underachiever with promise. Hopefully, that will change…not on this movie, but maybe, just maybe on some project down the road.