Review: Well-Crafted Characters and Top-Notch Performances Elevate Cop Drama ‘End of Watch’

By  · Published on September 21st, 2012

In one sense, End of Watch is just another cop movie, something like the sixth written by filmmaker David Ayer. We’ve seen the valor and corruption seeping into your everyday urban police department writ large countless times before. But through its use of first-person found footage and it’s framing of the story from the point of view of LAPD officers Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Zavala (Michael Peña), Ayer’s film (which he also directed) finds a new way into the old formula.

The movie offers a front seat portrait of these men as they traverse the fraught, dangerous terrain of South Central Los Angeles. With Taylor toting a camera for a class project” (he’s working towards a law degree), the officers sporting small recorders on their chests and your everyday squad car cameras offering a POV perspective, the movie offers an unvarnished look at these men on the job. We’re present as they respond to a variety of incidents, talk about everything from their families to the future to their love for Red Bull, and develop the sort of deep-rooted camaraderie that only comes from spending so many long, trying nights together.

The writer/director builds a plot of sorts around the conceit, with the officers mistakenly drawing the ire of the Mexican drug cartels – but it’s a thin one. Any dramatic reward it offers pales in comparison to the sheer pleasure of the faux-documentary approach and the way it frees the leads to build the sort of authentically natural performances you simply can’t find in most mainstream movies.

You’re living with these guys over the course of some tough months on the job and, because Gyllenhaal and Peña play such fully-realized individuals, you feel every personal triumph and physical blow. They’re good, devoted cops, but they’re not above the occasional “off the books” bout with a perp or a schoolyard-caliber prank. The filmmaker and his stars give us enough of a taste of who these men are inside and outside their squad car that you’re heavily involved from start to finish.

Instead of transitioning from plot point to plot point a la most genre movies, in which every moment is expressly geared toward advancing the storyline, Ayer drives home the existential displacement that must come with being a cop on a dangerous patrol. You’re driving along, having a mundane conversation about whatever, when a call comes across the radio and, minutes later, you’re burrowing your way through a burning home, inhaling reams of smoke while you’re rescuing kids. It’s a terrifying existence, one that’s only right for a precious, proud few. End of Watch takes you on an exciting ride with two of the best.

The Upside: High quality acting and a faux-documentary approach that offers an existential depiction of life as a cop in the most dangerous of areas.

The Downside: The plot is thin and writer/director David Ayer’s attempts to weave in the perspectives of drug dealers, the cartels, and other criminal elements don’t work.

On the Side: Ayer really loves his cops, specifically the LAPD: he wrote Training Day, easily the most prominent police movie of the new millennium, among others, and directed the drama Street Kings.

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