David Ayer’s End of Watch is a more than competent procedural police film, no question about it. It was written over the course of six days and filmed on location in South Central Los Angeles, with its two stars going through rigorous police training for their roles. Yet in the final analysis, the picture seems to lack a certain pop and ultimately suffers from a lack of restraint.
Ayer is turning out to be one of those cats who simply knows cop movies and South Central. He wrote the screenplay for Training Day and directed Harsh Times and Street Kings. With End of Watch, Ayer sinks his teeth into the procedural aspects but also paints his characters as human beings. He is on-point when capturing the process, but the personal aspects are off the mark.
Jake Gyllenhaal is LAPD officer Brian Taylor and Michael Peña is LAPD officer Mike Zavala. They are partners and they have grown to become close friends, sharing hours of conversation in the cop car as they handle the streets in the criminally infused South Central locale of Los Angeles. When the movie begins, it is revealed that Taylor is filming some of their police activities for a class he’s taking.
End of Watch takes the audience through a series of police events that test the resolve of Taylor and Zavala and also delve into their personal lives. Zavala and his wife (Natalie Martinez) are expecting a child, while Taylor is seeing his relationship with Janet (Anna Kendrick) progress to the next level. When the two cops stumble upon the activities of a drug cartel, however, things become very complicated on the streets.
As mentioned, Ayer’s motion picture really excels on the streets of South Central. The dialogue between characters rings true and the police action is good and gritty. Gyllenhaal and Peña build a pair of quality characters, displaying terrific chemistry together. It’s clear that the two actors have been through something to get to this place and it’s compelling to share in their experiences on screen.
It is also interesting to see how other cops relate to each other. America Ferrera puts in a solid turn as Orozco, while David Harbour plays a distant and disillusioned officer. He eventually gets an eyeful, proving just how vulnerable police officers are on the streets and how quickly the job can take everything away.
End of Watch runs into trouble when it strays from its procedural core, however. A wedding sequence runs too long and provides very little of value, for instance. As necessary as it is to spend some time getting to know the characters’ dimensions, Ayer doesn’t handle these elements as well and the scenes feel out of place in the context of the larger narrative.
The constant video-logging of various events becomes a little clunky too, mainly because Ayer abandons it frequently to provide sweeping wide shots or broad context-setting visuals. He has made this clear in interviews, stating that he meant for End of Watch to be a “found footage” picture but tossed the idea.
The trouble is that the film ends up being too much of a hodgepodge to match the succinct and tenacious nature of its cop drama material. Even the action sequences, especially the closing gunfight, seem to get in the way because Ayer overdoes it. That every single day in the lives of the two leads is an action bonanza seems unlikely and silly. Throw in a melodramatic (and unnecessary) finale and the grit’s been exchanged for by-rote police stuff. It’s too bad: Peña and Gyllenhaal deserve better.