“End of Watch” Movie Review

     David Ayer, the writer of "Training Day", makes an attempt to bring a gritty, real life police drama to the screen with his new film "End of Watch".  The film is, perhaps, the most difficult film I've seen in quite a while to review in an objective and non bias manner.  While I can talk about the film's quality in terms of writing, acting, pacing, and direction, I can't help but see it through the lens of my own experiences as a Police Officer. Unfortunately for "End of Watch", it doesn't meet the expectations I have for this type of film, though I applaud the efforts of the filmmakers for taking a shot at it.  If someone sets out to make a serious film about cops who patrol a rough area in Los Angeles, I would think their intention would be to have real life police refer to the final product as the "Platoon" of cop movies.  Something that accurately depicts life on the beat in today's media driven society.  It's clear Ayer intended "End of Watch" to capture that realism, but the trained eye indicates he misses the mark in favor of cinematic action sequences which channel the thrill of adolescent first person shooter video games rather than the emotion and intensity of the real thing.

     "End of Watch" begins with a vehicle pursuit of a faceless suspect through the streets of South Central Los Angeles.  The scene is brought to the audience entirely by way of the chasing patrol car's dash camera.  For me, all that was missing from this generic sequence was the narrator of the Firearms Training Simulator (F.A.T.S.) stating "You and your partner are in a vehicle pursuit of two armed suspects.". When the suspect vehicle becomes immobilized, the two suspects exit the vehicle and fire at the Officers.  In these circumstances, cops know these suspects would likely have fled on foot at that point, but I suppose these guys may have had a death wish.  The dash camera footage shows the patrol car windshield riddled with gun fire as the two suspects suddenly drop to the ground as they are presumably shot and killed by the two off camera cops.  This is when the first bit of unrealism rears it's head as the two cops leave the cover of their patrol car and approach the suspect vehicle before additional units arrive.  All ends well; however, as we are then treated to footage of the immediate aftermath which includes the two Officers, who have just been involved in what would clearly be the most stressful moments of their lives, playfully fist bumping and giddily celebrating their performance. Moments like these are littered throughout "End of Watch", and each had me asking if Ayer intention here was to make a film which doesn't show police in a positive light.

     Ayer structures his film through a unique combination of traditional footage mixed with footage taken from the plot's most unique twist.  The story follows Officer Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Officer Mike Zavala (Michael Pena), regular partners who patrol a part of South Central Los Angeles.  Early in the film, Taylor tells us he is taking a film class in school and is doing a project in which he plans to film his everyday life and interactions as a cop.  This includes a hand held camera as well as cameras affixed to he and his partner's uniforms.  The manner in which Ayer intercuts footage from these various cameras adds a nice creative element to the proceedings, but sometimes veers in the direction of your average "Call of Duty" shooting scenario rather than staying the course with something truly original.

     I felt the interactions between Taylor and Zavala within the confines of their patrol car may have been the most realistic portions of the film.  Ayer uses conversations between them as well as conversations with other more senior Officers as a way to convey the mindset of your average street cop, information I'm sure he got through research or ride alongs with actual Police Officers.  Some of the more subtle comments include Zavala asking Taylor if he "ran" his new girlfriend (meaning did he check and see if she has a criminal record) and a 28 year veteran on the squad lecturing the newer Officers on the LAPDs ability to ruin your career, though he puts it in a much more profane way.  Much of this dialogue serves as a way to connect the dots between calls these Officers respond to during the film.  Some of which depict truly deplorable acts of human savagery (a crack addicted mother calls in her missing children who are then found tied up and gagged a closet) , and some seem cliched ( saving children from a burning building). 

     The film really had a chance to make a bold statement at one point, but ultimately fell a bit short.  Taylor finds himself in a situation where he has his shotgun pointed at a suspect who is mounted on top of a female Officer and has beaten her nearly lifeless.  Moments before, the same suspect severely injured another Officer, effectively ending his career.  Taylor gives verbal commands and the suspect gives up.  When his Sergeant asks him later “Why didn’t you shoot him?” Taylor replies, “I didn’t feel like killing anybody tonight.”  Any cop who watches that scenario unfold knows he or she would likely pull the trigger, but in today’s society and media climate, some may also hesitate.  I really was hoping Taylor would instead reply to his boss that he was already in a shooting just one month before and he didn’t want to be labeled by the media and the LAPD as a rogue out of control cop.  Major points would’ve been scored there, but it appears the filmmakers chose a path that was less controversial.  A path that really didn’t match Taylor’s mentality in the film either.

     Taylor and Zavala, who are just 3 years removed from the academy, are not depicted as perfect and in many ways they represent the attitude of some of the younger cops patrolling our neighborhoods today.  To their credit, Gyllenhaal and Pena both are excellent in their respective roles, as are the supporting players in the film.  Ayer chooses early to show you how immature these two guys really are when one of them is challenged to a fight by a suspect on a loud music call.  Zavala promptly removes his badge and gun, gives it to his partner, and proceeds to have a knock down drag out fight in the suspect's living room.  This while Taylor giggles like a child and films the entire event on his camera.  Talk about blackmail footage!  To say Zavala trusts his partner is an understatement because this situation alone would almost certainly see both of them fired.  The events in "End of Watch" continue on in a period noted to be about 6 months with one chaotic incident after another.  So much so that it would be impossible for anyone to cope with such a pace for a year, let alone an entire career.  On the flip side, the interactions between Taylor, Zavala, and their respective family members show a very human side to these guys.  Scenes involving Zavala and his wife, as well as Taylor and his courting of a new girlfriend are some of the best scenes in the film.

     As the plot thickens, Taylor and Zavala find themselves as targets of the Mexican Drug Cartel and this leads to the films climactic moments and all realism is thrown out of the window.  In order to entertain audiences, Ayer chooses to bring in a group of card board Hispanic gang members who have as evil and lifeless an image as the most stereotypical person would expect.  These gangsters target these two cops because they are apparently the biggest threat to them and their operation, not the other 8000 LAPDS cops on the force, just them.  It does give the filmmakers a chance to stage an action scene within the confines of the film's budget, but it doesn't lend any credibility to a film which sorely needed it at that point. 

     I'm not really sure what Ayer set out to do here.  Is he making a statement that both cops and crooks should be seen in a negative light and thus we are all headed for certain Armageddon?  Yes, I had a problem with the final scenes since they were overly brutal and viscous toward the police, yet it was pointed out to me that one of my most beloved films, "Reservoir Dogs", exhibits the same brutality towards police.  That's certainly an interesting point, but whereas Tarantino films exist in what is understood as a parallel universe, "End of Watch" is grounded in today's reality and that opens it up to criticism.

     I read that 32% of the film's opening weekend gross came by way of Hispanic audiences and I would be very curious as to how they felt Hispanic people were portrayed in this film, whether it be the hot headed Zavala or the overly exaggerated gang members.  Perhaps I may have over thought this a little and Ayer was simply aiming for cheap thrills at the expense of the police, taking full advantage of the constant public and media pressure cops already endure.  One thing is for sure.  If the events depicted in "End of Watch" were realistic and normal, no one in their right mind would ever sign up to be a cop since the stress of the job wouldn't be worth all the money in the world. GRADE: C