It took writer-director David Ayer two directorial failures before getting it right with End of Watch. Here, he’s finally made a great crime movie. That seems to be his fascination and muse: he wrote Training Day and Dark Blue, and moved on to direct Harsh Times and Street Kings. Not to say that any of those movies were terrible, but with End of Watch all of the effort he put in has finally paid off. This is a fabulous movie.
There’s no overarching story here. We’re instead given what’s essentially a ride-along with a couple of cops. Each is given as much screen time as the other. The one who drives the police car is Mike Zavala (Michael Peña), while the other one is Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal). They are very good friends, and you will become aware of that over the course of the film. The two actors have great chemistry together, which certainly helps, but their interactions with one another really sells it. We alternate between seeing them drive around their district and being involved in life-threatening situations.
The first thing that you’ll notice about End of Watch is the way that it’s filmed. It’s feels a lot like a found-footage movie; most of the shots are taken from cameras either held or clipped onto someone in the film. Brian is taking a film course in his spare time, so he’s often got a handheld camera. He also clips a camera to his shirt, and also gives one to Mike. Finally, we get dashboard shots, both facing forward — giving us potentially nauseating car chases — and inward, where we see the partners goofing off while driving around.
We also get some handheld shots from the “villains” of the picture, a street gang that goes around causing havoc and is built up for most of the picture as the baddies. Why they’re filming — and why their boss, who’s supposed to be an incredibly savvy man, would let them — isn’t made clear, but you can forgive that because the movie wouldn’t quite work if we didn’t see some things from their perspective. Sometimes, we do get more traditional cinematography, although it’s still handheld and very shaky, so it blends in very nicely.
I’m not often a fan of this shooting style. It frequently gets used to cover up for a low budget (this one was made for $7 million) or a lack of talent. Here, it helps make the picture feel authentic. We feel like we’re really there, and all of the awful things that happen over the course of the film — there are many — come across as very real. It’s very infrequently that I’ll have to turn away from the screen when watching a film, but there were a couple of times during End of Watch where I had to do just that.
This is the type of buddy cop film that other filmmakers should look up to. It puts so many other moves in the genre to shame simply because you can believe in it. The characters all feel real, the situations seem like they could really occur, and you become immersed in this world as a result. There’s so much depth to the relationships that you genuinely care about these people. When the climax rolls around, even if you have a good idea as to how it’s going to play out, you’re going to feel something. I was surprised how much I cared.
Part of the problem that a lot of these films have is tone. Many are too light to take seriously or too dark to be any fun. End of Watch has a perfect balance between depravity and levity. Yes, you see terrible things take place while riding along with these people, but you also get to see the light moments, both in the car and in their personal lives. Each man has a woman in his life (Natalie Martinez and Anna Kendrick), and while the women don’t play a large role, they provide even more humanity to their cops.
End of Watch also brings into the spotlight racial conflicts, gang wars, the relationship between different police officers, and quite a bit more. While it’s not really a “thinking” movie, it does raise some issues that might just stick in your mind for a while after it ends. Of course, it wouldn’t be effective if it didn’t feel authentic, which is why that point is so key in making the film work as well as it does.
The lead performances are also important. Jake Gyllenhaal has always been a good actor when he chooses meatier roles, and here’s one that’s as meaty as they come. Michael Peña has been one of the more underrated and underutilized actors working for quite a while now, and it’s great to see him get a chance to shine with this film. The villains — the main gang — sometimes wind up going over-the-top just a touch — mostly in the way that f-bombs are used as a substitute for both spaces and punctuation in their dialogue — but they seemed plausible enough to not draw attention away from the film.
End of Watch is how you do a gritty, realistic buddy cop movie correctly. It is the best of its ilk in years, and essentially becomes one of the new gold standards. It feels authentic, it packs an emotional and intellectual punch, it contains fantastic acting, and its handheld shooting style doesn’t act as a detriment. It is exactly what you want from this type of film, and it is absolutely worth a watch.