The ending of "End of Watch," the latest gritty L.A. cop drama to come from writer/director David Ayer, completely embodies the film as a whole. Without spoiling anything, it’s filled with viscerally intense action, great emotional moments and terrific real performances. Mixed in with the good, however, are preposterous gunfights, poor directorial and scriptwriting decisions.
It’s an often frustrating mix, and that’s just the last fifteen minutes. The rest of "End of Watch" plays the exact same way, with pieces of a brilliant cop movie intertwined with a mediocre one. The final result is something in the middle, a film that somehow exceeds expectations but still feels like it falls short of its potential.
The story focuses on two young L.A. cops, Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala (Jake Gyllenhaal and "Crash"'s Michael Peña). The duo patrols the dangerous streets in their squad car, often bantering about their various loves (Taylor is dating a cute woman played by the always adorable Anna Kendrick, Zavala is a committed family man) and brotherly poking fun at one another.
Most of their patrol routes involve taking care of small but tense issues, such as a noise complaint at a gangster’s house party. However, after a few horrifying but seemingly disconnected finds (most notably a bloody execution room), Taylor and Zavala slowly find themselves getting in too deep with a cartel’s business.
The plot mainly occurs and escalates in clips or at the margins of "End of Watch." The cops themselves don’t really know what they’re getting into; their discoveries and interference with the cartel’s dubious plans are more a result of coincidence than concerted effort. The execution room, for instance, is only found because the guys are investigating an elderly woman’s late welfare payment.
As a result, the story’s progression feels a little more natural, but it doesn’t have a ton of momentum. It’s also easy to get confused about how much time has elapsed (Taylor goes from dating to marriage seemingly in the course of two scenes).
Frankly, while "End of Watch" is sold as a shoot ‘em up between gangsters and cops, Ayer’s script is more interested in the friendship at the center of the film. Thankfully, Gyllenhaal and Peña are terrific, sparking a genuine brotherly love on screen. Much of the film consists of the two chatting in their car about life, which could’ve become grating and dull, but their lively chemistry mixed with Ayer’s authentic script – I wouldn’t be surprised if much of their dialogue was improvised – makes their interactions a pleasure to have access to.
Unfortunately, while Ayer’s screenplay is one of his better efforts (minus a few silly moments, specifically whenever a vicious gangster named Big Evil – because his "evil is big" – uses the F-word like most people use oxygen), his direction shoots "End of Watch" in the foot.
The main problem is the inclusion of found footage into the story. Throughout the film, Taylor is videotaping their daily missions with a handheld camera and some glorified lapel mics. The goal is to gain an even greater sense of intimacy to the main relationship and urgency to the action. However, Peña and Gyllenhaal already create a natural camaraderie without the gimmick’s help, and the shaky cam only makes the action disorienting.
To make matters worse, Ayer doesn’t even commit to the found footage. Half of the movie is already shot like a regular movie but with a raw handheld vibe (sometimes the car’s dashboard cam is also used). Throughout much of "End of Watch," Ayer switches between the actual film and Taylor’s footage, causing the audience to get distracting trying to figure out whose movie they’re watching. It’s a needless element that adds nothing and subtracts the audience’s ability to get truly immersed into the film.
It’s upsetting because "End of Watch" does so much very well. The performances are excellent – I’m not saying Pena should get a Best Supporting Actor nomination since it’s still early, but I wouldn’t argue against it – and the realistic action creates some solid tension. But for every good decision, there’s another equally bad one (the found footage, the gangster who talks like a profane parody of a gangster, the cop-out ending).
In the end, I can recommend "End of Watch," but considering what it could have been, I wish I could say more.
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