A quick glance at filmmaker David Ayer’s curriculum vitae would lead you to believe that he’s not a fan of American law enforcement. In a just over ten years, he’s written and/or directed five police corruption movies – from the Academy Award winning Training Day, to 2008’s formulaic cop romp Street Kings. His latest, End of Watch sees Ayer sticking to his guns with another revelatory tale of LAPD activity; only instead of the familiar “cop with a vengeance” yarn, he presents a refreshingly mercurial tale of two honest cops trying to keep the mean streets of Los Angeles clean through totally lawful, by-the-book means. Sounds boring, right? I thought so too. Two days after the film, I’m still eating my words.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as ex-marine turned competent cop Brian Taylor. Along with his working partner and best friend Mike Zavala (Michael Peña), the pair patrol the streets of Los Angeles closing down raucous house parties, stopping the Mexican drug cartel and, on the odd occassion, breaking into a human trafficking den filled with thirty or so beaten up immigrants seeking exile. Whilst out on their various quests, the pair idly chit-chat about their home life, relationship troubles and the latest ethnic stereotype joke. It’s all done in good humour, and we quickly learn that their friendship is based on far more than just a mutual affinity for catching the bad guys.
What End of Watch lacks in narrative drive, it makes up for with an interesting stylistic edge. The movie resorts to an unique melange of handheld camera technique (Paul Greengrass‘ Bourne films sprung to mind), ‘day in the life’ documentary and reality TV, a la COPS. Thankfully, the first person camera work is brought into the story directly with Brian documenting his day-to-day working life for a part-time filmmaking class. It’s a farfetched premise (and surely against some kind of police discretion policy), but the shrewdness of Ayer’s script makes you sink straight in to the visual onslaught.
For the first hour, it is some of the best, most transcendental cop-drama stuff I’ve ever seen. Gyllenhaal and Peña are overwhelmingly impressive in the lead roles, with the sort of natural chemistry that makes them film’s most affable law enforcer duo since Lethal Weapon. I could even tolerate the excessive side plot about Brian’s blossoming romance with local law-school girl Janet (Anna Kendrick). But, as the film runs to it’s close, Ayer works tirelessly to form a conventional storyline thread – which it didn’t need – that it ends up impinging on the ballsy filming technique. We learn that the Mexican cartel on the hunt for the two cops are also filming their own, incriminating activity on a handheld camera. Why? Are they in the same film class as Brian? If the universally inept acting technique is anything to go by, the answer is evidently no, but just like the cop-out final sequence, the boundaries of normal logic don’t seem to fit into this otherwise authentic portrayal of bromance on the thin blue line.