I initially wasn’t planning on watching End of Watch even though it was directed and written by David Ayer, the same guy who gave us Training Day (as well as SWAT and Street Kings) — which was fantastic but also emotionally draining and exhausting to get through because it was so heavy duty. The trailer made it look like just another gritty cop drama, which I usually prefer to catch on DVD rather than at the cinemas. But in the end, strong word of mouth won me over.
The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena as two police officers working in South Central LA, which is one nasty place filled with drug dealers, gangs and drive by shootings. Gyllenhaal’s character is doing a film project for class, which requires him to carry around a camera whilst on duty.
I didn’t like how the film started or where it appeared to be heading. I am sick of these “found footage” or faux documentary films made with shaky cameras that make me want to throw up, and End of Watch initially made me think that the whole film was going to be a frustratingly nauseating ride.
Fortunately, although somewhat strangely, the film more or less reverted back to traditional film-making methods with steady shots, interspersed with these film project cams and other police security cams (such as from their patrol vehicle). On the one hand it was a relief knowing I wouldn’t have to feel like vomiting all throughout the movie, but on the other it begged the question of why those shaky shots were necessary at all, given it wasn’t pretending to be real footage anyway.
Like Training Day, End of Watch is gritty and hardcore, with intense action, edge-of-your-seat suspense and confronting scenes that challenge the audience to not avert their gaze. The key difference between the two films is that End of Watch is driven by the close friendship and brotherhood between the two leads. I like Gyllenhaal and I love Pena (I think he is one of Hollywood’s funniest and most underrated actors), so I guess that helped skew things in the film’s favour for me.
The movie is dedicated to police officers, but it’s not a total suck job like say Act of Valor. The characters are presented as believable people with personality quirks and flaws, real hopes and fears. It’s proof that well fleshed out characters can do wonders in terms of engaging the audience.
The supporting cast is also solid, including the recently omnipresent Anna Kendrick and Natalie Martinez, who play the partners of the two leads, as well as America Ferrera aka Ugly Betty, a no-nonsense female police officer. Special mention goes to Yahira Garcia, who was frighteningly convincing as gang member Lala (at least for someone who has no idea what gang members act like).
End of Watch is a film that creeps up on you. In the beginning I was thought I was going to hate it because of the camera issues. Then for a while I thought it was repetitive and wasn’t getting anywhere — it felt like a Cops marathon, with the two officers going on episodic missions, one after another, with no real sense of a progressive narrative.
Eventually, as the various strands began to become tied together, I discovered that it was actually a very well-crafted film. The final climax, in particular, was riveting stuff, as suspenseful as anything I’ve seen from an action or thriller this year. It was also good to see the film not bow down to cliches and finish on a strong note that tugs the heartstrings by just the right amount.
On the whole, End of Watch wasn’t quite what I had expected, but it turned out to be a satisfying experience largely thanks to the genuine chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Pena. I did have some issues with the arguably unnecessary shaky camera and an occasionally stagnant narrative during the first half, but all things considered it’s still a superior action thriller.
4 stars out of 5!
PS: It’s actually a good thing if you don’t know what End of Watch means (its a euphemism) because it gives away part of the plot.