Have you ever watched an episode of Cops and thought to yourself, “Gee, they should really turn this into a movie! That would be awesome!” Well, if these words, or something similar, have flown through your television-saturated brain at some point, then your wait is over and your wish has been granted.
End of Watch follows the lives of two blue-collar, street-level LAPD cops, Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena). Using the conceit that Brian is filming his daily life as an assignment for a film class, we watch through the lens of an “amateur” handheld video as the two cops patrol the streets, bust some baddies, shoot the breeze, uncover the nefarious dealings of a Mexican drug cartel, and live the typical lives of LAPD beat cops working in the grimy sections of the “City of Angels”.
If this summation is giving you an odd sense of deja vu, that’s no coincidence, because “typical” seemed to be the governing philosophy behind pretty much every aspect of this movie.
First, in the character department, this is a movie where the the good guys are broskis with hearts of gold and the gangsters are Henson-esque creatures speaking barely audible dialects of English. For instance, we are treated to scenes of Brian and Mike playing pranks in the station, complaining about paperwork, teasingly questioning each others’ masculinity and sexual orientation, and rifling off smart ass one-liners towards superiors. Of course, we are also shown the flip side of their personality, such as Mike’s family life and Brian’s budding relationship with Janet (Anna Kendrick), illustrating to the audience that, behind their rough exteriors, these guys are really a bunch of cuddly teddy bears. Meanwhile, the gangsters are portrayed as inhuman drones who, at times, literally use the “f word” for every other word spoken.
Now, as much as I hate to admit it, I’m sure there are many officers in the LAPD who do fit the stereotypical image of a working-class police officer, just as I’m sure there are more than a few residents of south-central Los Angeles who are walking, talking “gangsta” cliches, but even if this is the case, it doesn’t change the fact that painting characters in such broad strokes is cinematically dull. At the very least, had these scenes been executed with a bit more tact, it might have been possible to overlook their stereotypical nature, but the film too often revels in any opportunity to play up its characters’ cardboard cutout personalities.
Then there is the whole matter of the cinematographic decision to give the movie a “home video” or “found footage” look. This DIY digital motif is an increasingly growing genre, and the rationale behind this ugly lensing is that it supposedly adds a level of gritty realism, but I have yet to see a film where it comes off as anything other than cheesy, and this includes End of Watch. What’s even more frustrating about the handheld approach in this film is that after it goes to so much trouble establishing the plot point that we are seeing the film’s events through the lens of Gyllenhaal’s handheld film project, the film randomly uses the camera’s importance and placement at its own convenience, whenever writer/director David Ayers feels it is stylistically expedient to do so. The result is a betrayal of trust with the audience that inevitably leads to further questioning of the film’s sincerity on other choices it makes down the line.
Despite all these negatives, End of Watch really does have a lot of potential. In isolation, there are scenes that transcend the film’s otherwise exploitative tendencies. The personal moments between Brian and Mike as they cruise the streets are especially effective, an almost “day in the life” feel focusing on the moment-to-moment experience of being in the LAPD (like Black Hawk Down for cops), but the film lacks the conviction to see this minimalist approach through. Instead, as to not stray too far from narrative norms, the film insists on inserting an obligatory love story and willfully fashions a highly circumstantial narrative that lands the two beat cops on a Mexican drug cartel’s kill list. By trying to please all audience members, the film seals its fate in the land of mediocrity.
Perusing the internet for other reviews of the movie (although of course, I always recommend coming to AreYouScreening? for the most insightful reviews on the wide world web), you’ll notice a common agreement among the critical community is the strong performances from the two leads, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena. As much as I have enjoyed performances from both actors in the past, I can’t join the consensus and jump on the bandwagon because neither actor is able to elevate their characters beyond the caricatures the film’s script provides them. Even Anna Kendrick, who through brilliant performances in films like Up in the Air and 50/50 has proven herself one of the brightest young female thespians working today, is unable to breathe much life into her character, a sure sign that the actors had to overcome the script instead of being aided by it.
I do have to concede, even with all of its cinematic failings and stereotypical trappings, End of Watch never really bores. Much like the aforementioned reality television show Cops, no matter how stupid you feel watching it, there is some primal voyeuristic pleasure that is undeniable. Of course, as with the television show, this only works to a point. Ultimately, End of Watch is akin to a corny, post-9/11 TV tribute to the police force. The purpose may be to venerate their service and sacrifice, but if you really wanted to honor the men and women in blue, the more reverential thing to do would have simply been to make a better, more realistic, movie.