All it took was a director of David Ayer’s ingenuity to bring the oft-maligned found footage genre back into repute, transposing it onto his uniquely gritty blend of cop drama in End of Watch, a film not without its stylistic excesses, but girded by its visceral, unexpectedly affecting tone, and unquestionable devotion to characters over carnage.
From its opening shot, this is quite unlike anything we have seen in either crime thriller or found footage; the hood-mounted camera we’re used to seeing on shows like World’s Scariest Police Shows, complete with a date and time stamp, provides coverage of an intense car chase, backed by a kinetic score. At the scene’s conclusion, in a hail of gunfire, the story’s heroes emerge; police officers Bryan Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña), two regular cops who, by way of Taylor’s filmmaking art elective – because he’s studying pre-Law – are using handheld and miniature clip-on cameras to record their activities on the beat. Ayer makes the judicious decision not only to fleet between found footage and conventional cinematic material, but to smartly get the gimmick-based exposition out of the way quickly, allowing us to get down to the nitty gritty of learning who these men are.
Superbly-acted pieces-to-camera tell us much about Taylor and Zavala, but perhaps most crucially reinforce their bond. In fact, the film’s best moments more often than not are those in which the pair is simply cruising around and chatting, rather than the urgent gunfights. The prickly fratboy banter is hilarious but also subtly acquaints us with their lives, which Ayer follows up on with admirable, unexpected detail, namely Taylor’s fast-moving courtship of girlfriend Janet (Anna Kendrick).
Be aware that this is not The Shield; Taylor and Zavala are not corrupt, and it’s refreshing to see such relatable, human faces put on the men in blue. We get to observe the banal minutiae of paperwork that gets in the way of real police work, and the situations they’re forced to confront but shouldn’t, notably a scary sequence in which the pair run into a burning house to rescue several children. Ayer’s film also has its pulse firmly on the gangs, who boastfully film many of their violent transgressions for posterity. Once Taylor and Zavala “bite the tail of the Cartel” mid-way through the film – by essentially investigating the wrong gangster – the tension ratchets up and scarcely abates for the remainder. The spectre of these cartels silently lingers in our minds through subsequent scenes of the cops enjoying their personal lives, acutely aware that something is going to give in act three.
The grim, seemingly hopeless finale – pulsing along due to thunderous sound editing during the gunfights – concedes the reality of the pair’s profession, and gives Gyllenhaal and Peña their best opportunities to emote, reinforcing the fraternal bond that has brought them together to this point. Ayer’s film is unsentimental and fully committed to its grim vision of the LAPD’s war on gangs – suggesting that the back-and-forth between the cops and the criminals is interminable, perhaps unstoppable – right to its moving final scene.
Sure, there are problems; it’s rough around the edges, rendering an opening fight scene near-incomprehensible, and the sheer volume of swearing, though no doubt authentic, comes close to self-parody when one gangster in particular uses it at least three or four times per sentence. Still, on the whole, Ayer has a strong grip on his characters, and in many ways this feels even more authentic than his dynamite scripting debut, Training Day.
End of Watch is in UK cinemas November 23rd.
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