Earlier this year saw the release of Chronicle, which proved that the concept of the found footage mockumentary could be applied to a supernatural teenage drama and not just to horror movies. Now we have End of Watch, which proves that it can also be applied to a police drama. Much of what we see is captured on personal digital camcorders, police dashboard cams, and surveillance cameras pinned to the characters’ shirts. Even when the point of view shifts to an omniscient third-person camera, as it periodically does throughout the movie, writer/director David Ayer keeps it shaky and rough. In both cases, it’s a surprisingly effective stylistic touch. It gives the film a raw, visceral edge, making it seem as if we aren’t merely watching police assignments but are actually taking part in them. Sometimes it’s merely thrilling. Sometimes it’s genuinely frightening.
But its visual techniques are only a small part of why this movie works so well. Its greatest achievement is its character development, which goes far beyond the typical conventions of the buddy cop movie. The central characters are Los Angeles street cops Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Zavala (Michael Peña), partners on the job but best friends first and foremost. We see what remarkable chemistry they have in every situation. Some are mild, as when they drive from point A to point B and playfully rib each other. Some are serious, as when they involve themselves in dangerous situations like rescuing children from a burning house or getting into street and foot chases. Some are deeply personal, as when Taylor admits that he’s thinking of popping the question to his girlfriend, Janet (Anna Kendrick), or when Zavala and his wife, Gabby (Natalie Martinez), have their first baby.
We learn that Taylor is documenting his job for a video production class he’s taking. As the story proper begins, he and Zavala are transferred to largely Hispanic area of Los Angeles and immediately catch wind of a Mexican drug cartel operating on this side of the border. The more they delve, the more dangerous and ugly the situation becomes. They will, for example, enter two houses, one housing illegal immigrants of all ages in inhuman conditions, the other the grizzly site of mass murder, dozens of mutilated bodies rotting in a large room hidden behind a plastic curtain. A hit is eventually ordered against them, leading to a climactic shootout with ruthless gang members at an apartment complex. Their training didn’t prepare them for this, but they take their jobs seriously and they aren’t afraid to put their lives on the line.
One of the film’s greatest strengths is its balancing of tone. While many moments are intense and highly dramatic, as would be expected in a police drama, others are quite funny and at times downright hysterical. Much of the humor is reserved for the quieter moments between Taylor and Zavala, specifically when their conversations veer into dating-and-relationship territory. We get that Taylor is ready for marriage despite having avoided it for some time, and we also get that Zavala loves his wife, the only woman he has ever been with. They even get some good zingers in when they indulge in ethnic stereotyping; it’s obvious that they’re just having a little fun and in no way are trying to offend each other. We in the audience can sense that, and this is a testament not only to Ayer’s screenplay but also to the spot-on casting of Gyllenhaal and Peña, both of whom give performances that deserve recognition come the awards season.
As far as the plot itself is concerned, certain aspects of it are predictable. This is not to suggest that they’re predictable to a fault; with characters this well developed, and with a scenario this plausible and compelling, we can suspend disbelief without fear of the cables snapping. We can even buy into the convention of conveniently placed handheld cameras capturing just the right footage, not just of the good guys but of the bad guys as well. This movie isn’t about plot or technique so much as it is about Taylor and Zavala, who may bend the rules every so often and yet wholeheartedly believe in what they’re doing. We in the audience can respond to these characters fully – as professionals, as friends, and as individuals. They’re likeable, but more to the point, they’re decent men trying to do the right thing. We don’t see too many cop characters like them these days.
With this in mind, I’m admittedly baffled by the final scene of the film. For obvious reasons, I cannot describe it to you. Let it suffice to say that it serves as an epilogue, and that the intention is to establish something we already knew about Taylor and Zavala. The scene immediately preceding this was more than enough to end the movie appropriately. But at this point, I’m just looking for something to nitpick. Minor flaws aside, End of Watch is a superb police drama, in part because of its stylistic approach but mostly because Ayer obviously cared about his characters enough to develop them realistically. If we didn’t believe them, we wouldn’t have any reason to invest in them emotionally. But we do invest, and that’s because they’re not what we would consider “buddy cops.” They’re best friends who have made enforcing the law their profession.