David Ayer‘s cop action flick End of Watch is consumed by found-footage gimmick it doesn’t need. The device feels forced upon the story, and is applied in such a haphazard fashion that its presence only become more of a distraction. Audiences don’t need a reason for certain camera angles; they need good characters, and End of Watch has them with great performances from lead actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña. The movie is driven by character, and while the camera-tricks vie for our attention, it’s the relationship between two beat cops that holds our interest.
Officers Brian Taylor (Gyllenhaal) and Dell “Z” Zavala (Peña) work the streets of South Central Los Angeles. In a painfully flimsy excuse for the found-footage device, Taylor is currently taking pre-law classes, and for his art elective he’s doing filmmaking. That’s why he’s able to put little cameras on himself and his partner, and carry a camcorder around on the beat. While there is a bit of a plot concerning the two cops coming into the crosshairs of a Mexican cartel, the majority of the movie is just Taylor and Z taking calls, goofing off around the department, shooting the breeze, and saving the day.
End of Watch is meant to draw us into the day-to-day of police life, but the demands of a film mean that not only do they have to skip over the boring stuff (although there is a brief scene of the cops doing paperwork), but the events have to outdo your standard episode of Cops. Although the film sprinkles in little time markers like Taylor’s developing relationship with his girlfriend Janet (Anna Kendrick), it still feels like the cops’ beat is just a daily action movie. There’s a bit of escalation in the events, but because they all play out under similar circumstances—Taylor and Z take a call on the radio—rescuing kids from a burning building has the same “just another day” feeling of getting called in for a noise complaint.
The found-footage gimmick and headline-grabbing deeds would be too much to bear if not for Gyllenhaal and Peña. Their relationship feels real and lived-in. The characters’ heroics are nice, but it’s the simple back-and-forth that makes the movie more than just another cop flick. Taylor and Z rip on each other while driving around are the highlights of the movie, but the smaller moments where they confess their fears and self-doubts are equally powerful. I could do with one less car chase in End of Watch if it meant I got another scene of Taylor and Z just chatting it up.
Ayer is still comfortably in his wheelhouse of the gritty cop drama (he previously wrote Training Day and wrote and directed Street Kings), but the found-footage device feels like a shortcut to an intimacy his actors already provide. Ayer demonstrates admirable confidence by giving so much of the movie to his actors, and eschewing traditional structure in favor of a more free-flowing narrative, but End of Watch would walk better if it didn’t use a crutch.
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