End of Watch (review)
I’m “biast” (pro): I’ve been a bigger fan of David Ayer’s work than some others have
I’m “biast” (con): I was worried that Ayer was retreading ground he’s been over many times before
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Oh. Oh my.
I went into End of Watch half eager, because David Ayer — screenwriter wunderkind of Training Day fame, director of the grimly riveting Street Kings — is one of the more intriguing newish voices in mainstream American film. And half wary, because he’s done this before, the Los Angeles cop thing, and even if he hadn’t, everyone else has. Haven’t we seen this too many times already? Is there really anything new to say?
And the beauty of Watch — well, just one of the beauties — is that not only is there indeed new stuff to say and new ways to say it, but Ayer has pulled off all this newness with a vibrancy so electric that the screen seems to sing from the film’s opening moments, and keeps ringing long after the film ends. Howls, even, with a messy, human authenticity that transcends genre tropes to smack you in the face with beseeching truths about the contradictions of police work. Watch feels like the pinnacle Ayer has been aimed at for the past decade. I mean, of course I hope he has more beyond this. But Ayer may have, with End of Watch, made his first truly great film.
With an unvarnished perspective, Ayer, both writer and director here, gives us his patrolmen, best friends and partners embodied with simultaneous good humor and unapologetic assholishness by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena. I’d say they are a kind of valentine to the LAPD, except Watch’s hugely rewarding portrait of them is honest instead of sentimental, and fully realistic about the ironic fact that cops can be both good, brave men and the biggest jerks you’ve ever met at the same time. Which is what, in turn, makes this the best sort of valentine: one that doesn’t have to sugarcoat reality in order to make you love and respect these guys, and recognize the difficulties of the job they do.
The film takes the conceit that it is, for the most part, the videoblogging work of Gyllenhaal’s (Source Code, Love and Other Drugs) Brian Taylor for a filmmaking art elective class as he does university pre-law studies: he’s that sort of cop, the one who wants to become a lawyer. So we get a cop’s-eye view of the job as Brian and his partner, Mike Zavala (Pena: Tower Heist, The Lincoln Lawyer), cruise around South Central, which makes this one of the most intimate examples of the genre we’ve ever seen. We are privy to the most personal interactions between the two men, from goodnatured ethnic joshing to frank and often very funny discussions about sex and romance. (Mike’s wife is pregnant! Brian’s about to get married! Cop-movie cliché alert… except we shouldn’t necessarily expect the expected here.) We also bear witness to everything from the vulgar, creative insults cop teams lob at one another to all the crazy shit cops encounter in the daily course of their work, things that are sometimes so horrifying that you can’t imagine how these guys endure similar day in and day out.
This isn’t just day-in-the-life: there is a story here, but the less you know about it going in, the better. It becomes an unelucidated commentary on the increasingly complicated law-enforcement environment that even ordinary street cops are contending with in megapolises such as Los Angeles: immigration issues, rapidly shifting demographics, the “war on drugs,” and other matters that once seemed like science fiction and now are mundane. There’s an SF-like intensity to End of Watch, in fact, and not just one that’s about techy stuff, like how the little tiny button cams Brian and Mike wear on their uniform shirts, as part of Brian’s project, capture them in some bad behavior. (Hell, Brian willingly videos them engaging in bad behavior, without any apparent worry that it might impact them negatively.) We are living in the future world, and Watch inhabits it: Women cops — lots of them — are treated casually by the film and by the male cops. There’s lots of untranslated Spanish zipping by (but you understand perfectly well what’s being said). Electronic eyes watch everything, not just Brian’s camcorder but dashboard cams and cellphone cams. This is no longer reality TV: it’s reality.
This is a perfect film. Fantastic work, sure, by Gyllenhaal and Pena that goes beyond performance: even the awareness that we are watching actors with familiar faces cannot spoil the feeling that they are these cops. But more than that, this is that rare cinematic wonder: a movie that effortless combines comedy and drama, sex and violence, rage and introspection. Nay, it is positively bursting with all of that. This is everything we go to the movies for.