Cop-thrillers have become a bit of a dead horse. Buddy cops in which one is a straight-laced stickler for protocol and the other an unpredictable loose cannon? Four shoot-outs happening before their lunchtime? Walking away from explosions without blinking? And all this while saving and/or seducing a few gorgeous (and/or naked) fashion models? They have all been done before and we’ve been underwhelmed by them.
Looking at his filmography, David Ayer (The Fast and the Furious, Training Day, S.W.A.T) seems to have a particular affection for the L.A.P.D. However, as writer and director of End of Watch, he does not give us a simple copy of his previous credits nor any of the tired tropes we’ve been exposed to before.
Ayer’s film is about the two underdog officers of the force: Brian Taylor (Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Peña). The partners maintain the mocking, dark banter of true friends much to the annoyance of their colleagues. To the begrudgery of the rest of the force, they also usually end up in the wrong place at the wrong time and manage to make several impressive arrests. However, when they stumble into the malfeasance of a vicious Mexican cartel, they make their most successful arrest and soon become the target of the gang’s revenge.
Gyllenhaal and Peña are great in their roles, both as cops and comrades. Their believable, funny banter makes you laugh and care about whether or not they will survive. The duo undertook some extreme preparation for their roles by going on-the-job with the L.A.P.D for five months before shooting in order to enhance the film’s authenticity: they immersed themselves in the real work of the force, riding alongside 4-5 different police partners 2-3 times a week. The pair even allowed themselves to be tasered by some officers so that they “understood how that felt”. This, if perhaps zany, approach to method acting helped them succeed in their portrayal of Taylor and Zavala.
The camerawork is probably the most significant aspect of End of Watch. Framing switches between POV shots from cameras and a traditional multi-camera set up. Sometimes, it seems as if the film’s documentary-style format is forgotten about by Ayer to favour certain contexts or stunts. Furthermore, for reasons that are not explained, the film’s plot also has the Mexican cartel shooting a documentary; this allows Ayer to put Taylor and Zavala together in a single shot rather than just presenting their POVs. In another rather tenuous plot point, Taylor even brings several handicams and microcameras to work as part of a project for a film class. You find yourself asking who’s filming what and questioning their general credibility.
That being said, the shaky-cam aesthetic does also enhance the film. When the action is in full-flow the realist POVs feel like a bonus. The immediacy of the job and squalor of the L.A. streets are visually represented by the energy created by such framing. Realism is achieved while also offering a few technically interesting shots such as that from a microcamera attached to the barrel of Taylor’s gun. The viewer is imbued into the characters’ erratic and violent world in a way that even filming in 3D would never capture.
Contrary to expectations, we are thus presented with a cop-thriller without the familiar whiff of clichés, twists and cowboy cops. In End of Watch, Ayer finds new places for this genre to go. Though the camerawork may not appeal to everyone, it’s not something that gets in the way of the sharp writing and directing, charismatic performances or the arresting (excuse the pun), meaningful and funny plotline. More than anything, End of Watch is a wonderful tribute to the L.A.P.D and definitely worth viewing.