Two young officers are marked for death after confiscating a small cache of money and firearms from the members of a notorious cartel, during a routine traffic stop.
END OF WATCH, the new feature by writer-director David Ayer, is an episodic adventure into the dark world of drugs and gangs in South Central Los Angeles. The story is told through the eyes of two young, but experienced police officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña).
Taylor and Zavala patrol the streets in a black and white. Most of the crime they face is gang-related. They are on call for incidents raging from checking on whether elderly relatives are still alive, through to shoot-outs and other turf war violence. They are proud–almost swaggering–when they talk about how dangerous their job is compared with other LA cops.
Taylor is making a documentary for a filmmaking unit he is studying. He captures much of his and Zavala’s story on a handycam. Both cops have a small camera clipped to the pocket of their uniform. In this way, we the audience, are given access to the officers when they are on patrol. Zavala and Taylor are tightly bonded brothers. They joke about their respective backgrounds; Taylor is single, white, book-smart. Zavala is Mexican, married and doesn’t like to over-think a situation, which is what he believes his partner is prone to do. They while away the long hours on patrol with in-jokes and more serious thoughts.
Ayer’s fly-on-the-wall approach to shooting the film doesn’t stand up to much analysis, not only do we see the ‘feeds’ from Taylor and Zavala’s lenses, but we are privy to footage from a camera wielded by a gang of street thugs and even an unnamed FBI agent who records the goings-on with a drug cartel in Mexico. For those who don’t enjoy the shaky-cam technique (we’re looking at you David Stratton) the director’s choice will make watching this movie, a challenge. I thought the cinematography worked well enough.
Gyllenhaal and Peña are very strong in their roles. Gyllenhaal reportedly did ride-alongs with various LAPD units for months. Peña went on forty of these with Gyllenhaal. So they got a clear idea of the type of men they were portraying. The success of this effort is on screen. Natalie Martinez plays Gabby, Mike Zavala’s wife of eight years. Anna Kendrick, this year’s “it” girl (PITCH PERFECT), plays Taylor’s girlfriend Janet. In other movies, these roles would be insignificant. Although neither has much screen time, Ayer has made these parts more significant by giving Kendrick and Martinez a couple of nice moments to shine and also by having their characters be part of the conversational flow between the guys. These men talk to each other about their relationships. These women are important to their lives, not a movie expedience.
The character development of Zavala and Taylor is the film’s ace-in-the-hole. The plot is functional at best. The string of events Taylor and Zavala experience is rather implausible. The movie has other strengths. Ayer is intent on making the seamy side of Los Angeles another character. As we travel with our heroes through the neighbourhoods ruled by gangs, we feel the filth, decay and tension. Although the film shares some of the same feeling as movies like COLOURS (1998) RAMPART (2011) and 2001’s TRAINING DAY (which Ayer also wrote) the LAPD shown in END OF WATCH is squeaky clean, not on the take and does not have a problem with race. Taylor and Zavala are hero cops and the department itself is engaged in a heroic struggle. As Taylor puts it in the opening of the movie: “We stand watch together. The thin blue line, protecting the prey from the predators, the good from the bad. We are the police.”
END OF WATCH is an entertaining, tense, violent two-hour movie with two great lead performances, a strong sense of place and a serviceable story. It is screening in Australian cinemas now. I rated it 7/10.