Pena, Gyllenhaal show tremendous chemistry in cop film
Editor's Note: I missed "End of Watch" on its initial run earlier this year. The studio decided to re-release it last weekend in hopes of it garnering some awards season attention and I figured this was as good an excuse as any to run a review.
"End of Watch" is the best cop movie I've seen in a long time.
It's rare for cop movies to just be about cops. More often than not, these movies insist on either being about rebellious supercops who think the rules just don't apply to them or it's some procedural that's more about the seedy underbelly of a city or even the department itself. I can't remember the last time I watched a movie that focused on good cops trying to do a good job, so at the very least "End of Watch" gets points for trying to break the mold a bit.
I was initially a little wary of the film. I've grown to loathe the "found footage" genre and I began wondering if this would end up being little more than an episode of "Cops" but with some semblance of a plot. And while "End of Watch" didn't change my mind on the style, it wasn't nearly as bad as distracting as I expected. Although much of that is due to the fact that the use of "found footage" felt largely arbitrary and justified only through the flimsiest of excuses (one character is filming everything for a filmmaking class he's taking). There's no real rhyme or reason as to why it slips in and out of being "found footage," making the decision to use it at all even more pointless.
The film follows Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena), two officers with the Los Angeles Police Department. The two recently have been cleared following a wild car chase and shooting and are back on patrol, but on a new beat in a different part of town. The days mostly involve the same level of harrowing encounters they've become accustomed to (like finding small children duct taped inside closets), but things escalate quickly once they unknowingly draw the attention of a Mexican cartel.
I suspect that Ayer's decision to go found footage was in part so he could justify giving the film an episodic feel. Each scene plays out like its own vignette. Things connect to the larger events that come to a head at the film's climax but each scene feels largely complete in its own way.
The result is a film that isn't so much interested in telling a story as it is simply with giving us a look at what it's like to be a beat cop in southern Los Angeles. The two encounter more harrowing, soul-crushing incidents in a single shift than a lot of cops do their entire careers (or so we're informed, at least). Of course, it also doesn't stray from showing the rather mundane parts of the job, too. This might be the only cop movie that actually shows them doing paperwork.
That said, regardless of how curious (and occasionally distracting) director David Ayer's stylistic choice may be (or how trite his script may feel toward the end) or how light the script may be, what makes this a compelling movie is the relationship between Taylor and Zavala. Gyllenhaal and Pena are absolutely stellar together and have an on-screen relationship and chemistry that is among the best I've seen.
There is a history between these two and you feel it in every conversation they have. Lots of cop movies like to have the protagonists/partners proclaim their brotherhood, but it's never felt as genuine or had as much weight as it does here. At the very least it's some of the best acting I've seen out of either Gyllenhaal or Pena, making it so much more a shame that the film never really found an audience. Pena in particular is great, though that's hardly a surprise. The guy has quietly become one of the most dependable supporting actors out there and it's heartening to see him finally get a really strong lead role.
I could have watched a whole movie of just Pena and Gyllenhaal riding around in their patrol car, talking about their lives and their job. The dialogue flows naturally and the sense of a shared history is evident from the very first time we see the two together. Our final glimpse of the two just before the credits roll is one of my favorite scenes of the year
With that, it's a shame the movie sort of moves into a predictable, if not somewhat overblown, place by the third act. It's not unrealistic, per se, but it just sort of feels like Ayer wrote himself into a corner and couldn't think of a more interesting way to close out this story.
Be that as it may, no one should let the more cliche or predictable portions of "End of Watch" deter them from a viewing. It really is worth watching, if for no other reason than to see Gyllenhaal and Pena work together.