Director: David Ayer
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Peña, Anna Kendrick
Plot: We follow the daily lives of two Los Angeles police officers via a documentary-style, as they come up against a criminal gang hell-bent on revenge.
Ever since Jake Gyllenhaal blazed his own cinematic trail as the title character in the weird and wonderful Donnie Darko, he has built up quite a varied CV. Zodiac and Source Code proved his ability to play leading characters well, but he never shies away from challenging roles such as Brokeback Mountain and End of Watch, for which he spent a few months with real-life police officers while researching his role in the film, which gives us a very authentic view of life on patrol in the one of the most violent cities in the world.
A high-speed police pursuit ends in a shootout in South Central Los Angeles. The LAPD officers involved, Brian Taylor (Gyllenhaal) and Miguel Zavala (Peña), are unharmed. They return to the station where it is revealed that the two are close friends and Brian is going to film them as they go about their job for a film project. A public disturbance call leads them to the house of Mr. Tre (Cle Shaeed Sloan), who yells abuse and ends up fighting Miguel, who wins his respect for not charging him with assault. Later that night, Tre and his fellow Bloods gang members are attacked by a Latino gang in a drive-by shooting incident. The following evening Brian and Miguel are called to the Latino gang’s house where they come face to face with the leader, Big Evil.
Brian tells Miguel that he has a hunch about Big Evil and decides to stake out his mother’s house. They pull over an apparent gang member who draws a gun on them, but is disarmed – the officers find a number of ornate guns and cash in the car. After rescuing a number of children from a house fire and receiving a Medal of Valor for their efforts, the pair arrest another man linked to the gang, who is found to be holding a number of people captive in his house as part of a human-trafficking ring. Brian and Miguel are subsequently told by a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent that they would be best advised to lay low due to a potential revenge attack. This significant arrest leads them on a path of confrontation with the Latino gang for a deadly showdown.
End of Watch doesn’t really know what it wants to be. We start off with a very interesting take on the buddy cop stereotype. Instead of two wildly different personalities, Brian and Miguel, despite their different backgrounds, are quite similar to each other. Following these two police officers around in a documentary style is something that most of us would be able to enjoy quite easily, especially considering that Gyllenhaal and Peña are likeable actors playing very likeable characters. Then the action switches to the so-called ‘bad guys’, who are filming their rather violent exploits on their cell phones – are we now in ‘found footage’ territory? This is never explained. Neither is the fact that the plot suddenly lurches across at certain moments towards being a standard drama – a sex scene which would fit into any drama is thrown in for good measure and to confuse its audience once again – who is filming this now? Perhaps an unseen voyeur, but again we don’t get answers. Technicalities aside, the film is terrific. The very violent world of the LAPD we are thrust into feels very genuine, even if you haven’t been anywhere near the streets of Los Angeles, the experience is very authentic – especially when the action concentrates on our two main protagonists.
Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña are perfectly cast. Their chemistry as both colleagues and friends is absolutely spot-on and there is need whatsoever for a delve into their respective pasts or careers to really get a taste of their characters. Almost immediately we are gladly invited to join them to see what their day-to-day lives are like and it is a true testament to both actors that the relaxed, easy-going style of Brian and Miguel is very watchable indeed. Gyllenhaal could have quite easily played the brash, heroic cop cliché, while Peña may have taken on the token Hispanic and gone through the motions. Instead what we have is a great script by director and screenwriter David Ayer, which provides the most entertaining moments in their patrol car as the two bicker and banter about each other’s families and the contrasting attitudes to life. These scenes also serve as an antidote to the particularly brutal drama that unfolds in the background to an unrelenting crescendo for the finale. Ayer’s direction, although uncertain about the approach that is meant to be taken in regards to how the film is trying to convey its message, is assured and thankfully shorn of the clunky editing that appears to have become obligatory for violent dramas these days.
End of Watch is different from your average cop drama. Superb acting, a witty yet tightly wound script and a genuine relationship between two officers which is captivating, fascinating and dramatic. Ayer could and should have stuck with the original plan – a documentary-style trip around South Central Los Angeles, purely from the perspective of the LAPD. Just this idea alone would have been enough to enjoy for a solid two hours, maybe even for three.