Powerful, gritty, and grotesque; these three words encapsulate David Ayer’s cop drama “End of Watch.” Ayer’s gut wrenching flick is so emotionally charged, it makes his previous police film “Training Day” seem wimpy. That’s no easy feat considering the movie set a high standard for intensity in the genre with its shocking violence, drug use, and profanity laden lines such as, “King Kong ain’t got shit on me.”
“End of Watch” isn’t about obviously corrupt cops in the vein of Denzel Washington’s Detective Alonso Harris from “Training Day,” but it similarly focuses on LAPD officers. Resembling an uncensored version of the show “Cops,” the film tells its story in a reality-TV fashion with footage collected from dashboard cameras in cars, small handheld cameras operated by the officers, and from tapes made by LA gang members. It cleverly explains the non-official police use of the camera with the ruse that one of the cops, Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) needs to capture video for his film class.
Taylor and his partner Mike Zavalas (Michael Peña) aren’t bad men at their core, just beat cops with delusions of grandeur. They treat the term “probable cause” as license to recklessly operate searches and raids whenever they feel is appropriate. Taylor and Zavalas truly believe they’re doing honest work to serve the people of Los Angeles, and luckily for them, they come out unscathed every time. However, lately their antics have started to disrupt operations for a powerful drug cartel, which makes them marked men. And no matter how protected they think they are as cops; they can’t avoid the heat forever.
As a film, “End of Watch” is affecting because its compelling use of found footage storytelling. Your ride along with Taylor and Zavalas can be funny when they’re joking around and thrilling like a first-person shooter during the tactical sequences, but it’s mostly twisted voyeurism. You witness horrific acts of brutality and squalid crime scene conditions that the camera lingers on, almost as if to say “Can you believe how disgusting this is?”
For found footage there’s surprisingly high production value, especially in the film’s romanticism for the Los Angeles scenery at night. There are some choppy moments as expected, mostly when the characters are involved in fisticuffs. The cameras that the cops have on their front shirt pockets get tossed all over during the tussles.
“End of Watch” is a police yarn, but Ayer’s movie is very much a character drama. Gyllenhaal and Peña both give truly convincing performances to get you to buy their brotherhood as partners. At points though, Ayer seems to get so distracted building up their relationship with each other and the women they love, that the angry drug cartel who wants to kill them feels like an afterthought.
Ayer’s flick is the ultimate cautionary tale about overconfidence. The cops in “End of Watch” play everything fast and loose, with no regard for the consequences for their actions. They ignore blatant warnings from other law enforcement agencies and even rival gangs that the cartel is after them. And in the lack of assistance from federal agents aware of the conflict, you sense an implied corruption or collusion with the drug dealers. It’s an interesting concept that should have been fleshed out further in the movie. But as the saying goes, “If you play with fire, you get burned.” (Insert other clichés here.)
My Grade: B+