Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Peña, Natalie Martinez, Anna Kendrick, David Harbour, Frank Grillo, America Ferrera
Plot: After suspecting one civilian of drug-running, officers Brian (Gyllenhaal) and Mike (Peña) pull over the possible criminal only to find themselves arresting a member of a dangerous drug cartel whose associates will stop at nothing to kill them.
After writing the Academy Award-winning Training Day, David Ayer seemed like a promising and powerful new voice in Hollywood. His next few films that included Harsh Times and Street Kings capitalised on his knowledge of L.A. crime and the police but both were quite dull movies. After a four-year hiatus he is back with End of Watch and once more proving his skills when it comes to examining the relationship between police partners and the dangerous work that is required of them. Ayer’s new release focuses (yet again) on a white and Hispanic police duo whose close bond and lives are forever jeopardised by the hostile environment of a crime-ridden South Central L.A.
Harsh Times’ biggest error was placing too much emphasis on the cultural clash between Christian Bale and Freddy Rodriguez as well as centering much of the film on the extremely unlikeable Bale character. End of Watch is far more removed from that agenda yet still maintains the gritty and tough aesthetic that elevates tension and drama. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Brian and Michael Peña’s Mike are habitually joking around about their altering ethnicities (without tediously pontificating on the subject) and never fall under the category of unlikeable. On the contrary, what makes End of Watch so engaging is the pair’s clear chemistry, affability and believable evolution through the film. Ayer’s script is either incredibly taut and authentic or Gyllenhaal and Peña’s improvisation is expert – in whichever case, the dialogue always seems natural.
The level of realism is additionally brought forth with the hand-held camera work advocated perhaps superfluously. Brian is supposedly working on a project which, for exposition’s sake, means he carries a camera around with him almost constantly, along with two small ones clipped on to his and Mike’s uniforms. These particular set of viewpoints do not appear distracting to begin with and it’s only when Ayer adds a barrage of various other shot types to set up a scene that the film’s design becomes questionable. What stigmatises it completely is the rival, villainous drug cartel also recording their day-to-day lives, which includes confidential discussions of all their drive-bys and executions, along with footage of the events themselves. Ayer’s idea to see both sides from the perspective of home-video cameras is frankly messy once the criminal’s document everything and anything that could easily get them imprisoned.
The depiction of the villains is not as enthralling as Ayer may have hoped (though the two main criminals are incredibly repulsive and malignant to an effective degree) though it sets up an array of nail-biting scenes. The notion that danger lurks around every corner is exemplified throughout the scenes on the streets as Brian and Mike get themselves into horribly perilous situations, all pinned with the thought that the cartel are waiting all around. These sequences are where the buttoned cameras are acceptable – worryingly close to the action and bringing tremendous atmosphere to the scene in which they're used.
As a film it boasts some fantastic performances, an impressive script and striking visuals. It never fails to entertain and, if anything, it runs too short. The arresting (no pun intended) portrayal of Brian and Mike from Gyllenhaal and Peña that drives End of Watch is a refreshing and captivating spin on the “buddy cop” relationship; one would hope the two act together again in the future as you honestly can’t get enough of their charisma. All in all, one of the best cop dramas/thrillers to come out in recent years and one that deserves a huge audience.
By Piers McCarthy. Also posted on LiveForFilms