We’ve all seen cop films where a mismatched set of partners who argue and make fun of each other but come together to solve a case, typically involving corruption or drugs. Maybe both. And thanks to the success of the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY series we’ve all been subjected to tons of found footage films. Despite both of these genres being so popular it’s surprising that no one thought to combine the two together until now with writer-director David Ayer’s END OF WATCH. But rather than make a formulaic cop film that is then burdened by the found footage style, Ayer creates a gritty, emotional and thrilling cop drama.
Ayer is no stranger to cop dramas, having written a number of screenplays that have dealt with the LAPD including TRAINING DAY and STREET KINGS, but rather than portraying the corruption of the LAPD as he has in the past, he tells the story of two honest cops on the force. Officer Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his partner Officer Mike Zavala (Michael Peña) are the best of friends and together they patrol South Central Los Angeles. Using a handheld recorder as well as a tiny camera that he’s attached to his lapel and Mike’s, Taylor records his experiences as a cop and what it means to be one for a film class he’s taking. Through these cameras and additional footage provided from the car’s camera and other handheld devices, we experience a few months in their lives, both personally and professionally, as they slowly become targeted by a major drug cartel.
The introduction and rational for all the handheld footage is weak at best and the class project aspect gets lost along the way but the use of this POV footage gives the film an intimate feel. Not only do we see firsthand what it’s like to go on calls that range from the mundane to the insane but there are also a lot of personal moments and conversations between Taylor and Zavala, stripping them of their cop exterior and allowing us to see the good-natured guys they are underneath. Getting to know the officers on a personal level ups that initial fear you get when watching them go on these frightening calls. And these calls they go on get violent and bloody real quick. In the film’s opening chase scene there’s bullets flying and blood spilled and it only gets worse as the film goes on. Seeing from their perspective what it’s like to crawl through a burning house and just how brutal violence against cops can be, is terrifying and some of the calls they go on provide some incredibly startling on-the-job imagery that I haven’t seen before in a crime film.
Although the found footage, handheld style gives the film realism and intensity it also distracts from the viewing experience. At times the imagery is very shaky and the editing is so quick that it’s difficult to make sense of what’s going on.
For a drama it takes a lot longer than usually for the Taylor and Zavala to build up to the final showdown with the villains, a group of gangsters acting on behalf of a Mexican cartel, but it works better this way because it allows us to really get to know Taylor and Zavala. And really it’s all about Gyllenhaal and Peña. They are a tremendously likeable pair who hold the movie together and really sell the story. Everything about their interactions and dialogue felt realistic and there was a real feeling of love and fraternity between the two. Their home lives with their wives and girlfriends are also included and rather than feeling like a silent observer of their personal lives, the handheld footage made it feel like I was participating in their lives and made the thought of anything bad happening to these guys heartbreaking. Frank Grillo as their captain and America Ferrara and Cody Horn as some no-nonsense cold female cops also have good supporting roles and Horn’s naturally icy demeanor gets used properly.
With its intimate shooting style, Gyllenhall and Peña’s strong chemistry and the intense violence, END OF WATCH proves to be a gripping and brutal cop drama that breaks away from the pack and serves as a reminder that police officers sacrifice their lives and the lives of their families every day in an effort to protect others.