End of Watch: David Ayer got his groove back

In 2001, David Ayer first introduced us to the dangerous streets of Los Angeles in Training Day, an outstanding film that most consider to be his seminal work. The film showcased his dedication to researching the nitty gritty experience of being a police officer in the LAPD. His second similarly themed film, Harsh Times (2005), was something of a farce. But now, seven years later, he delivers a riveting glimpse into the lives of two LAPD officers yet again, but packaged in a different way.

The narrative device of his latest film End of Watch is that of the ‘found footage’ film. Recently used in horror film series Paranormal Activity but more similar to The Blair Witch Project, Ayer chooses it for his latest film and executes it to great effect.

The film starts with a title card, “Once upon a time in South Central…”, an allusion to the old spaghetti Western Once Upon a Time in The West and a clue that what follows is a parable. We are introduced to the film by a dash cam sequence during which Officer Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) delivers a stirring monologue of his view of the law enforcement profession. And what a monologue it is: delivering it with a poetic sense of gravity, Gyllenhaal dramatically embodies the perfect law enforcement officer. “I am a consequence,” he says. Proudly and with purpose, he says, “We stand watch together, a thin blue line, protecting the prey from the predators, the good from the bad.” And finally, he declares: “We are the police.” The sequence ends with a bang that sets us off into the rest of the story.

Officer Taylor, apparently taking a film-making class as an elective in his pursuit of a law degree, straps a tiny camera onto his front pocket and that of his partner, Officer Zavala (Michael Peña). Together, the two cowboys go about their way being superstar police officers, letting us in on their lives using a “Day In The Life Of” type-documentary about working in one of the most notoriously tough parts of Los Angeles. And they really are basically modern day cowboys: they run and gun as they please, kicking ass and taking names for the “long dick of the LAPD.”

The action is, by and large, couched in believability—one of the film’s greatest strengths. Especially when the cameras are the ones clipped on Taylor’s and Zavala’s chest, we get to see and feel the camaraderie between the two. It feels genuine, and the performances of the two actors are impeccable. One gets the sense that they are who they appear to be: two police officers who have spent enough long nights patrolling the dangerous streets that they have bonded together in ways that few outside the law enforcement community can empathize with.

This sense of genuine connection and warmth that we sense between the two officers is paramount to the film’s dramatic impact. Without this buddy-buddy intertwining of lives, the ending would fall flat on its face. And while the story is largely formulaic in its adherence to dramatic storytelling, it is executed so well that one doesn’t mind that it follows the same formula of tragedy that we have seen time and time again. Like TV series Breaking Bad, the story perfectly adheres to the principles of the sort of good storytelling that makes you glued to your seat, wondering just what will happen next. About halfway into the movie, I knew that something terrible had to happen because Officer Taylor was just getting way too happy for a film about tough street cops. After all, this ain’t no rom com.

Then there is the imminent sense of danger. Ayer does a fine job of imparting the nervous energy and the intense level of stress that comes with diving into unpredictable and potentially extremely dangerous situations. He grounds the viewer in the very real perils of police work, reminds us that life and limb is at stake, and shows us what police officers risk losing on a daily basis, all without drawing attention to the fact that he is drawing our attention to it. The penultimate scene is especially riveting, and serves as a mature lesson to the gung-ho cowboy types.

On the whole, the drama that is begotten from the tragedy of the film is powerful, and there is a decent sense of realism, though the illusion is sometimes broken when Ayer chooses to shoot a few sweeping exteriors to transition between a few scenes. It is a relatively minor detraction, though. One review complains that the protagonists “deny their heroism,” but I believe that the particular scene in question is not so much a detraction as it is a realistic discussion about heroism. As seen in the Batman in Christopher Nolan’s films, heroes are images created by the public, symbols of a greater good to aspire to. And oftentimes, the image is projected onto people who in fact were simply doing what they felt was the right thing; they were not motivated by pride or some desire for recognition in the form of a Medal of Valor issued by the department. The scene’s exposition into the two officers’ domestic decriers of their foolhardy actions also served to remind us what is at risk. Again, it is a scene that is vital to the tragedy.

Another detractor of the film finds it unbelievable that criminals would be spelling out their plans in front of a camera, and that the LAPD wouldn’t exactly allow for such filming. Ayer addresses it believably enough by making the cameras something that people are concerned with, making it almost a character in itself. People are always confronting the presence and use of a camera: the psychotic cartel members threaten the camera’s owner with death, and the supervising sergeant with the threat of subpoenas and other administrative hells.

End of Watch is one of Ayer’s best work to date, especially when compared to his last film featuring a white and Hispanic buddy pair that appeared five years ago in Harsh Times, starring Christian Bale and Freddy Rodriguez. This time, the language is more natural (no more endless forced iterations of “I fucked up, dawg,” and “C’mon dawg”), the acting is better, and the script more well-written. It feels as though Ayer has finally refined and honed his skills to a fine degree. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.