Jake Gyllenhaal as Officer Brian Taylor
Michael Peña as Officer Mike Zavala
Anna Kendrick as Janet
Natalie Martinez as Gabby
David Harbour as Van Hauser
Frank Grillo as Sarge
America Ferrera as Officer Orozco
Cody Horn as Officer Davis
Jaime FitzSimons as Captain Reese
Cle Shaheed Sloan as Mr. Tre
Shondrellas Avera as Bonita
Writer-director David Ayer ("Training Day," "Street Kings") has made his career from plumbing the depths of corruption in the Los Angeles Police Department, reliving the heady days of the Rampart Division investigations over and over and over again. It's only fair then that he give back a little to those from whom he has earned so much. And so we get "End of Watch," Ayer's paean to the men and women of the LAPD.
Specifically to two of those men – officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña) – a pair of regular patrol officers in South Central LA. "End of Watch" isn't exactly the opposite of Ayer's "Training Day," there's no interest in painting these people as saints, so much as a character study of the kind of people who ride in those cars all day. Neither of them has much interest or passion for justice, law and order, they just needed a job they could get without a college degree and they have an aptitude for it. They spend as much or more of their time driving in a car pestering each other as they do policing citizens. "Police work is about comfortable footwear," Zavala says. They're also young and still in love with the adrenaline heavy aspects of the job, and have built up a fair amount of indifference to the everyday suffering they encounter, while still managing to ache for the true innocents in danger they encounter.
Unfortunately Ayer has decided to approach his character study through the conceit of home movies the various people involved are making as they obsessively record their lives. It works at first as Taylor documents his and Zavala's routine as a project for a film class he's taking, allowing for a faux vérité feel like an episode of cops.
That actually works surprisingly well. At first.
Ayer has two problems on his hands, however. One is recognizing how visually limiting an entire film 'shot' through a camcorder would be for a character study and how quickly it could become a gimmick. The other is that as much as he would like to just focus on his leads, he does feel some need for a plot to drive events requiring him to occasionally switch his point of view, particularly to four members of the Curbside Gang who are involved in some fashion with many of the crimes Taylor and Zavala come across.
The end result of those problems is that Ayer has to cut away from his POV camcorder work to more standard filmmaking techniques, and it often seems like he does so arbitrarily. This is particularly obvious when the second problem rears its head, as Ayer has decided to deal with other characters by giving them their own video cameras as they record themselves the same way Taylor does. And sometimes just finding a camera and taping themselves on it because they can. By switching back and forth it emphasizes that which should be invisible, the camera, and the artificiality of the world the characters inhabit.
Ayer also can't quite decide how much he wants to de-romanticize police work. One moment veteran officer Van Hauser (David Harbour) is reacting to getting stabbed with anger that paramedics cut off the bullet-proof vest he had paid for using his own money, the next Taylor is on the roof of his apartment building crying over a hard day at the office. Most of the time Ayer is in enough control to keep the mood whiplash from being readily apparent, but when it hits it hits hard.
That said, the focus on the characters is absolute with strong performances from Gyllenhaal and Peña which are by turns funny and sad and always believable. In fact, the entire police force is well cast with even minor appearances like Van Hauser and his trainee, or a pair of tough female patrol officers (America Ferrera, Cody Horn) strike just the right tone. The non-police fair somewhat worse, the Latino members of Curbside Gang in particular sounding like bad public access television versions of gang members.
What's good for the gander isn't always good for the goose, either. "End of Watch's" character-oriented narrative plays havoc with a conventional structure. There's just enough plot to move the story along, but it lurches in fits and starts as Ayer prefers to spend his time just letting his guys be guys.
Strong performances and a character-oriented focus breaks "End of Watch" apart from the typical police procedural, but the lack of a strong plot may discourage some, as will the decision to let the characters spend much of the time filming themselves. Not many character-oriented thrillers like this get made, however, so it's nice to be able embrace the ones that do, if you can handle the eccentricities.