End of Watch (2012)
(15) Running time: 109 minutes
Director: David Ayer
Writer: David Ayer
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Pena, Anna Kendrick
Reviewed by: Matt Wavish, official HCF critic
Director David Ayer loves his gritty, streetwise thrillers about cops and gang members. The writer of the excellent Training Day, and both writer and director of the equally brilliant Street Kings, he has also written Dark Blue, S.W.A.T and Harsh Times (which he also directed). Now he unleashes his best film yet both in terms of writing and directing with the realistic, handheld footage cop thriller, End of Watch.
The film is really an honest and believable insight into the lives of two officers who will happily lay down their lives for each other. Officer Brian Taylor (Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Pena) have worked together for years, both best friends in and out of work, the film follows their daily routine as officers driving around the violent streets of L.A. Taylor is filming his life on handheld camera, and the film mixes his filming with the camera in their police car, cameras in other police cars and, oddly, what appears to be a third person filming. While the intention to film by Taylor is never fully explained, it does give the film a unique realistic feel, often looking like one of those Police, Camera, Action type shows on TV. Taylor’s constant filming also annoys some of his other fellow officers. However, don’t be put off in thinking this is another found footage type film with unnecessary use of the camera, and often forced reasons to actually use handheld shots. This is a real as it gets, and Ayer masterfully brings the viewer right to the thick of the action, the drama, the tears and the love. End of Watch just might be the best cop film you will have seen since L.A Confidential, yes it is THAT good.
The film doesn’t exactly follow much of a plot, more a series of events while on duty, with one in particular leading to the films climax. Instead we get snippets of the sort of horrific things police have to deal with while on duty: ritualistic murder, people trafficking, loud house parties, fellow cops being savagely attacked, car chases and being shot at. It’s all here, and incredibly well executed. Gyllenhaal and Pena give career best performances as the two main characters we follow around, and Ayer brilliantly allows the viewer to share in their world, and they actually become your friends. Gyllenhaal and Pena bounce off each other with use of an astonishing script by Ayer, and when these two feel scared, you feel scared, when they feel pain, you feel pain, and when they joke and laugh, you laugh with them as if sharing the joke as well. It is all handled with perfection and precision: nothing feels forced, nothing feels fake, and for two hours you really believe in these two actors, and you truly, honestly believe that they are cops.
On the lighter side of the film the comedy comes and goes as fast as the editing. “First customer of the day!!” says an excited Officer Taylor as he and Zavala head out for duty and receive a call. There is excitement and passion in being a cop brilliantly portrayed here. These people are not just there to serve and protect us, they are also people whom have hearts, have lives and can have a laugh. To be honest, seeing what they see, if you can’t find time to laugh now and then the job will consume you and drive you insane (an idea expertly, and briefly realised as Taylor simply sits on his own, at night, facing out over L.A with his head down). There is excitement in being a law enforcer, as Taylor (again) approaches a fellow officer and asks “have YOU made a difference today?” Taylor often comes out with these remarks with an almost childish glee, almost mocking the very job he is doing. However, when it comes down to it, he is very serious about his job, and really wants to make a difference. He just enjoys a bit of fun now and then, and his camera is the perfect way to document real cops doing real cop stuff. Keeping with the jokes for now though, there is a hilarious scene where an officer is asleep on his desk, and Taylor puts shaving cream in his hand and wakes him up, forcing the officer to cover his face with the stuff. A bit of light comedy, to keep the dark times at bay…
There is dark stuff here, really dark stuff and a number of scenes are a little hard to swallow. A woman cop being beaten up by a massive Mexican is truly horrific, while scenes of violence and murder will unsettle even the most hardened viewer. Ayer wants to tell it like it is, and it is not a pleasant world at times. We also meet a vicious gang of Mexicans lead by Big Evil: “why do they call you Big Evil?” asks Taylor, “because I am big” comes the response. The chilling scene shows the gang leader prove to the police he has no fear of them, and shows just how far above the law some of these frightening criminals believe they are. However, there are also examples of the police themselves going a bit too far: witness a stunning scene where Zavala decides to fight a local gang member rather than arrest him. All shot on Taylor’s camera, and some hidden camera on their badges, the scene is a dizzying display of a moment of madness, but also a moment of police really standing up to the bad guys.
The film’s main centrepiece though, is the relationship between Taylor and Zavala. Gyllenhaal and Pena are superb, and Ayer could not have picked two better actors to play their roles. You see them at work, you get involved with their conversations about love, life and accidentally witnessing their wives parents having sex. Taylor pours his heart out about wanting to find the perfect woman, while Zavala gives him some tips from his own perfect marriage. Taylor sleeps around, and Zavala has been with his wife since High School. It is the perfect combination for some wonderful banter. We see them celebrating having babies, getting married and receiving medals, and everything in-between. End of Watch really, truly gets right to the heart of being a cop in L.A. It is terrific stuff.
The soundtrack is a pumped mixture of hip hop, soul and dance and is the perfect sound of the streets here and works brilliantly. Ayer also throws in some truly wonderful shots to really drive home the emotional stuff: one standout scene speaks volumes and simply shows Taylor and his new girlfriend Janet (Kendrick) kissing. In silhouette and with some chilled, sexy music, the scene is beautiful. Ayer also ends the film in the most perfect way, and while I cannot go into detail, his decision in what he does is a brave and truly uplifting one, and a decision that will cement Taylor and Zavala in your memory forever.
End of Watch is nothing short of brilliance. Thrilling, frightening, scary, upsetting, funny, dramatic, real, passionate and emotional. The film has everything, and is one hell of a ride into the lives of two cops just wanting to make a difference, enjoy life and stay alive. The use of the handheld camera gives the film a real, and authentic feel, which makes all the content all the more dramatic, violent and ultimately brilliant. End of Watch is astonishing, breathtaking, heartbreaking and heart-warming. This is a film you simply cannot miss!