This is a superior thriller that has found itself nestling alongside the latest films from Haneke, Ozon, Kiarastomi et al at film festivals during the summer season, and subsequently being talked up as one of the films of the year. Writer/director David Ayer’s first two films were the perfectly serviceable but unremarkable crime dramas HARSH TIMES and STREET KINGS – hardly the kind of fare that usually puts fire in the loins of chin-stroking cineastes, but nonetheless END OF WATCH has received some staggering reviews accross the pond, and rolls into the London Film Festival on a wave of good buzz.
Officers Taylor (Jake Gyllenhall) and Zavala (Michael Pena) are two long-time partners in the LAPD, who have an easy chemistry and an utterly devoted friendship and working relationship. The rest of their department roll their eyes at their macho arrogance and posturing, but there is also a grudging respect there: they’re good officers, who get excellent results on the LA streets they patrol. In fact, they’re almost too good – the pair have a habit of stumbling into ‘capers’, as Taylor memorably puts it at one point, and when their beat is switched to a Mexican neighbourhood that harbours members of a criminal underworld rapidly gaining in power, they begin to find themselves in situations that become increasingly perilous for them both.
Let’s get one thing clear: there is one reason, and one reason only why END OF WATCH is getting so praised and HARSH TIMES and STREET KINGS were barely seen. Actually, technically it’s two reasons: Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena. Their relationship is so brilliantly acted, so utterly convincing in its rhythms that it has to go down as one of the best portrayals of both adult friendship in movies for a very long time. They are equally good at conveying the different faces worn police officers - the way their performances change when in each other's company, then with their superiors, then with their familes, then with 'perps', feels completely authentic, and neither actor ever strikes a false note. Gyllenhaal hasn’t been this good in anything for a long time, and as opposed to some other pretty-boy actors in tough-guy role, you totally buy him as the marine turned cop. Pena, too, is a revelation, finally given the opportunity to play a complex, fleshed out role that isn’t just the token Latino, and duly turning in an understated but flawless performance. It’s more than likely that both will be heavily involved in the upcoming awards season.
As for the rest of the film – it is constructed like a series of vignettes, and the 'plot' such as it is, is really only developed in the third act. It's a good job that the vignettes are so thrilling and entertaining - in fact, Iprobably could have done without a cursory plot intruding at the end, happy as I was just watching Gyllenhaal and Pena cruise around LA.
There is a found footage conceit (Taylor is filming the officers’ day-to-day for a movie, for reasons that are never totally clear) that is picked up and dropped seemingly at will. Anyone paying attention will realize fairly quickly that the shooting style and mise-en-scene is almost totally incoherent, and he film would lose nothing (and probably gain a good deal of watchability) if Ayer has chosen to film it like, you know, a film.
It becomes less distracting as the film goes on, however, and does allow for some riveting action: there are chase sequences here that are breathtakingly involving and tense. The faux-verite style though, is still unnecessary and misleading – and anyone who thinks they are going to get ‘realism’ from END OF WATCH will be sorely disappointed.
Some have argued that END OF WATCH is little more than LAPD propaganda, and it's true that there is degree of mythologising in the film that won't sit comfortably with you if you're vehemently anti-police. However, there are so many films about dirty, corrupt cops (look at Ayer’s own STREET KINGS and TRAINING DAY), that I don’t see why there shouldn’t also be space for a film that gives us cops that demonstrate acts of heroism. The racial and sexual politics, however, are a little trickier to justify, and there are moments of crude, generalized characterisation, particularly within the Latino communities depicted in the film, that feel like they could have done with a bit more attention put into them, to say the least.
When you stare too hard at it, END OF WATCH does begin to fall apart, but it’s a film that feels like it doesn’t expect to be analysed and dissected like many other films at the festival will openly invite you to. All it wants to be is a relentlessly entertaining genre film, and thanks to superb pacing, Ayer’s characteristically great dialogue and those two masterful performances, this is an ambition it fulfils - it’s one of the best cop films in years.