My chief concern when I first heard about End of Watch was the pitch that “the action unfolds entirely through footage from the handheld HD cameras of the police officers, gang members, surveillance cameras, and citizens caught in the line of fire.” The use of the word “entirely” there is a bit of a lie, and thank God for that. While much of End of Watch is caught on handheld cameras controlled by the characters, writer/director David Ayer doesn’t rely entirely on the gimmick and does manage to allow some of the narrative to unfold as would a normal film. I am, however, happy that was the extent of my knowledge about the film as watching the trailer after the fact made me aware the marketing reveals more of the plot than I would have ever cared to know going in.
End of Watch begins by introducing us to South Central, Los Angeles police officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena) in pursuit of a suspect that ultimately ends in gunfire and death. The narrative begins shortly after, once the two officers have been cleared for a lawful shooting and are back to work.
Giving you a taste of what you’re in for, the opening sequence described above is seen via the dash cam of Brian and Mike’s police cruiser. The car swerves around corners and we occasionally lose sight of the action, adding to the intensity once the target is back in sight. Once the story picks up, the first person storytelling resumes via a handheld camera Brian is using for a class on filmmaking he’s taking to continue his education. Yes, it’s cliche, but a fact of the narrative that’s easy enough to overlook. Brian also clips two small cameras onto the front of his and Mike’s uniforms, and these two little guys will bring views of the action gamers will be used to once guns are drawn and we’re witness to the action straight down the gun barrel.
The action in End of Watch is only part of what makes it so good, a small part in fact, an added extra let’s say. I can’t tell if it’s the fact Ayer decided to use so much handheld photography, the performances or simply the nature of the story, but this is one hell of an authentic feeling drama. Gyllenhaal and Pena were perfectly cast as the two lead officers, Gyllenhaal’s character being a little rough around the edges and Pena playing his partner with the infectious smile you can’t help but think how great it would be to be his friend.
The camaraderie between the two, however, is the film’s largest asset. Brian has virtually no family to speak of, but he’s starting a new relationship. Mike has a large family in which Brian is accepted with open arms. The two are brothers, not by blood, but certainly by bond and you get that impression from the outset. They joke like brothers. Tease and protect one another like brothers. In a drunken state they profess their love for one another and while those around them poke fun, it’s an honest moment and it has a dramatic impact on your emotions as they step into their professional lives and the dangers of their profession.
We’re witness to horrific criminal acts, houses on fire, drugs, guns and more, but the less I tell you the better off you’ll be. End of Watch plays like a snapshot into the lives of two police officers, unaware of what’s around the next corner and it’s best if the audience is in the dark just as much as they are. I compared the film to a video game before, because like a video game you never know what could be in the next room until you turn the corner, but unlike a video game this has the feeling of raw human emotion behind it. You begin to care for the characters putting their lives in danger at every turn and you know if they get shot they don’t get to hit a “Reset” button.
Gyllenhaal and Pena are outstanding, but largely it’s Gyllenhaal’s character that runs the gamut of emotions involving his new found love for his girlfriend (Anna Kendrick), his occasional cowboy behavior, his naivete, his compassion for Mike and just his overall sense of humor and personality. This wouldn’t have worked, of course, without Pena’s contributions, a character with a wife he loves and a completely different personal life than Brian’s, but the two compliment each other so well it works out perfectly.
Kendrick is a great addition as Brian’s girlfriend as are additional members of the supporting cast including David Harbour (“The Newsroom”), as the frequently angry officer Van Hauser, America Ferrera and Cody Horn (Magic Mike) as a pair of hardened female officers and Frank Grillo as Brian and Mike’s sergeant.
End of Watch is going to attract scrutiny with critics likely to target its narrative conceit. Would a Los Angeles police officer really carry around a video camera? Would he actually attach cameras to his uniform? The answer to this is, likely, no, but for me that was an easy hurdle to get over. However, I hope filmmakers learn you can still present a similarly raw and intense picture with several of the same shots without having to use the characters as camera operators.
Overall, End of Watch is a raw, intense and emotionally thrilling cop drama with solid performances and a narrative that keeps you intrigued throughout. You’re invited into the lives of these two police officers and get to know them, those close to them and other members of the police force on a level you become invested in their well-being. I certainly recommend it as a film to check out in theaters and one I’ll certainly be looking to watch again on Blu-ray.