This film image released by Open Road Films shows Michael Pena, left, and Jake Gyllenhaal in a scene from "End of Watch."
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You’ve seen the buddy cop movie a million times before, especially the mismatched buddy cop movie. Having the police officers come from different racial backgrounds is an especially tried-and-true element of this genre; it allows them to make fun of each other for the way they talk, the stuff they like, the activities that take up their free time. It’s good for a reliable laugh, in theory.
You’ve also seen the found-footage movie a million times before, beginning with the precedent-setting Blair Witch Project in 1999 and again in recent years following the success of the low-budget 2007 horror film Paranormal Activity. A character carries a camera around everywhere, documenting everything, or maybe a camera just happens to be rolling and it captures secret or strange goings-on we wouldn’t be privy to otherwise. It’s a conceit that reflects the narcissism of the iPhone generation. Why wouldn’t we record everything we do? Everything we do matters.
All of this brings us to End of Watch, which combines these two approaches: It’s a racially mismatched buddy cop movie in which the cops record their daily activities while on patrol, from mercilessly teasing each other in the squad car between calls to tracking bad guys through the dangerous streets and narrow alleyways of South Central Los Angeles.
But admittedly, the found-footage aesthetic infuses the film with both intimacy and vibrancy; it creates the illusion that what we’re watching is unscripted, and so we feel like we don’t know what’s going to happen from one moment to the next. And co-stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena have such tremendous chemistry with each other, they make you want to ride alongside them all day, despite the many perils in store. As they insistently goof on each other in often hilarious fashion, their banter reveals not just an obvious and believable brotherly bond but also the kind of gallows humor necessary to make the horrors of their profession tolerable.
This is also familiar territory for David Ayer, who has extensively explored the complexities of the LAPD and the crime-infested parts of town its officers cover in films he’s written and co-written (Training Day, Dark Blue, S.W.A.T.) or directed (Harsh Times, Street Kings). Here, he suggests he’s developed a deep appreciation for what these men and women do. End of Watch isn’t a propaganda film by any means — its officers still make some questionable decisions and go looking for trouble where they shouldn’t — but the greater good of the department and an unflagging sense of fraternal loyalty are paramount.
Gyllenhaal’s Brian Taylor and Pena’s Mike Zavala obviously care greatly for each other and will always have one another’s back, long before weddings and babies give these patrol partners formal opportunities to say so.
Brian is taking a filmmaking class on the side, so not only does he carry a camcorder all day, he also places tiny, imperceptible cameras on his and Mike’s uniform shirts. Add to that the many cameras already attached to various parts of their squad car and it’s a multimedia wonderland. Sometimes this aesthetic can be exciting, as in the tricky high-speed chase that opens the film from the perspective of the dashboard; other times it’s intentionally dizzying and even headache-inducing. At other times, Ayer abandons this conceit entirely for an aerial shot of the downtown skyline or a love scene. The inconsistency is distracting; either go with it, or don’t.
End of Watch follows Brian and Mike through a series of seemingly disconnected calls, each of which results in a success for this intrepid young team. They begin receiving acclaim within their division, even from the cold, no-nonsense female team (Cody Horn and a very different America Ferrera, both very good) and the bitter, jaded veteran (David Harbour, who gets one great, angry and profane monologue). But they also attract the attention of a power-hungry, stereotypical Mexican street gang, which might have ties to even more powerful forces south of the border.
Still, they remain undaunted and actually scoff at the threat with some bravado, to the dismay of Mike’s pregnant wife (Natalie Martinez) and Brian’s increasingly serious girlfriend (Anna Kendrick, who nails her most mature role yet). From the brutal daily violence to the dramatic final act, End of Watch itself remains thrilling and uncompromising.
End of Watch
Written and directed by David Ayer. An Open Road Films release, playing at Rave Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Rated R for strong violence, some disturbing images, pervasive language including sexual references, and some drug use. Running time: 108 minutes.
Critic’s rating: ***½
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