End of Watch
Written and Directed by David Ayers (Training Day) and starring Jake Gyllenhaal (Bubble Boy, Prince of Persia: Something About Magic Sand) and Michael Peña (Crash, Observe and Report), this is a film about two uniform LAPD officers in South Central. Using a combination of found footage style self-shot POV digital cameras mixed with hand held documentary style filming techniques to surprising effectiveness, this movie is highly entertaining, visceral, and emotionally powerful throughout, all while having a sort of ludicrous plot that occasionally detracts from the overall realism of the violence it portrays.
The real strength of End of Watch comes from the camaraderie between the two main characters who vacillate between frat boy shenanigans while on watch and efficient professionalism when doing their actual jobs as police officers. The gravity of how dangerous their jobs are is given real weight and consideration right alongside the sheer boredom of the day to day drudgery. Their families and love lives are balanced against the brutality of South Central Los Angeles and its pervasive gang related violence. Ultimately, both actors did a lot of research preparing for these roles and they both do a superb job of humanizing these two men, warts and all. A lot of people tend to hate cops as a general policy, without regard for context or motive, but the fact is these men and women deal with the worst humanity has to offer on a daily basis. Whatever attracts these individuals to this profession, be it the excitement, the sense of power, or some genuine desire to do good (I hope this is the case more often than not) the reality of the toll it takes and the depth of brutality encountered has been pretty well sanitized by Cops and any one of the color-by-numbers police procedurals that crowd the airwaves.
This is the other strength (if it can be called that) of this film: the depiction of violence and depravity, without a soundtrack or an elegantly framed reveal. The surreality of a poorly lit backyard, the sputtering gargled breaths of a female officer laying in a driveway, her face savagely beaten into a mess of blood and contusion, while her assaulter is subdued and handcuffed, this is what Cops doesn’t show us. That sometimes, maybe most times, they don’t get there in time to save the day, display the title card and cut to commercial. And the result is pretty shocking when the worst day most of us have to deal with at our jobs is the AC failing on a hot day in July. Ayers does a great job of demonstrating that the professional demeanor and controlled attitudes of these officers is a thin veneer belying the fact that their very presence in a situation is a lighting rod for chaos, and that they are fully aware of it. Behind the bravado and cocksure talk, they are fully aware of their own vulnerability as well as the courage it takes for their families to live with the imminent possibility of receiving a phone call no one should ever receive.
Okay, so, weaknesses. Well, the plot is a little bit too Hollywood for this to go down in the annals of fine cinema. The late great Roger Ebert described End of Watch as ‘one of the best police movies in recent years’. I don’t know about that. It’s one of the best movies about police that I’ve seen in a while, but when it comes to procedure and politics, I must object. As an example, the (kind of kick ass, thrilling) opening chase scene and shoot out depicted exclusively through dash-cam is a great opening. The subsequent high-fiving celebration after the shootings of the perpetrators would have landed on KTLA within a week. Controversy would descend, like a bandwagon Lakers fan on win-streak.
I have a mixed opinion of Los Angeles after growing up there but there is one thing I can say for sure about it: cops are not held in high regard for their self control or likability. From Rodney King to the Rampart Division scandals and everything in between, the LAPD is, well, not quickly forgiven. And some of the cowboy nonsense these two get up to strain credulity. Further, the villains that are set up to avenge the cartel activity they have disrupted are at first kind of scary, then cartoonish, then just silly. To avoid spoiling anything, the final showdown is kind of dumb. When it comes to officer related shootings, the real LAPD does not do what they do in the film. This is coming from someone who watched the North Hollywood shootout in ’97 go down live, a few miles from where it took place.
Plot absurdities aside, this film may not make you suddenly love police officers and respect all the hard work they do. But it does a good job telling a good story about two good guys trying to do a good thing. It’s pretty…good. I think you’ll like it if you are looking for solid action, drama, character, heart, veracity about the human condition, and an exciting take on a certain part of our country that is still, in some ways, the Wild West. As scary as that place in the heart of Los Angeles can be, I kind of appreciate that it exists, with its own sense of honor and values, however alien it is to the rest of us. And I like the idea that there are guys like these two trying to hold the line, men with compassion and humility and courage. Better men than I.
End of Watch