End of Watch: why so meta?

22 November 2012

In cinemas from Friday 23 November.

With its LAPD setting and its frantic, handheld visuals, End of Watch recalls TV’s The Shield. Its opening scene, a police car chase taken entirely from the on-board camera of the pursuing vehicle, unfolds like a relentless virtual simulation ride. Throughout the film, its point-of-view shots resemble a ‘shoot-em-up’ videogame, while character and plot are developed through disparate but repetitive episodes that recall RPGs like L.A. Noire. To boot, it’s also a found-footage thriller. Dizzying, disorienting, potty-mouthed and violent, the film is the bastard child of a generation feeding off its own attention-deficit. It has a charged pulse from its onset, but it’s a curious wonder that, by its end, it also has a heart.

Brian (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike (Michael Peña) are LAPD cops who drive their daily beat picking up calls in the violent neighbourhoods of South Central. They drift from one hysterical episode to another: altercations with postmen, missing children, houses on fire, all of which are interspersed between bouts of dialogue to do with their private lives and their relationships with women: Mike is happily married to prom date sweetheart Gabby (Natalie Martinez) while Brian is on the threshold of a romance with Janet (Anna Kendrick).

Ordered to control curious onlookers at a cordoned crime scene, Mike jokes that “policing is all about comfortable footwear”. Later, Brian laments that the “lifeblood” of their job “is paperwork”. In search of excitement, the duo gradually and unknowingly become embroiled in a turf war beyond their grasp; unaware of certain links between their ostensibly routine calls, Brian and Mike become targets of a gang of AK47-wielding drug runners led by Big Evil (Maurice Compte). The high stakes are evinced effectively: there are clear hints that Big Evil and his cohorts are willing to play by very different rules to those normally agreed upon by police and their quarries. Particularly brutal is a scene in which Brian and Mike respond to a call to discover a colleague has been stabbed in the eye and another has been badly beaten. In contrast to, say, The Wire – in which it was never in anyone’s interests to shoot a cop – the danger to police here is palpable, and given recent currents within the UK media regarding homicidal dangers on the front line, the film carries a topical urgency.

End of Watch is written and directed by David Ayer, who wrote 2001’s Training Day, with which the film shares an ear for wry, tough vernacular (“Why doesn’t he just go eat a bowl of dicks?”) and an interest in the procedural habits of officers. Unlike Denzel Washington’s rogue detective Harris in the earlier film, though, the focus here is more on the friendship and trust that sustains a watertight professional partnership. The conversational asides that temper the film’s stomach-churning pace lend each character nuance and plausibility. Peña and Gyllenhaal prepared in pre-production for five months, and it comes as a surprise to learn that the vast majority of their dialogue was scripted, when so much of it feels credibly improvised.

Pushing it, though, is Ayer’s curious decision to include a metatextual element. Brian is working on a project for which he exhaustively films his and his partner’s work routine. Though it might draw attention, deliberately or otherwise, to the arbitrary link between an agitated, handheld aesthetic and “realism” – as practiced by TV shows such as The Shield, for instance – it’s ultimately distracting and quickly becomes tired. Ayer could have feasibly shot the film without this conceit and still retained both its vérité aesthetic and the incredible tension that drives its climactic set-piece. Such an aesthetic might have been clichéd, of course, but here, as it is, it’s a gimmick. Scenes in which Big Evil’s gang members also film their lives add very little. Besides, there’s a sufficient amount of shots here whose source of origin is not accounted for, that the whole found-footage element is made redundant.

Claims that End of Watch contributes something new to the police procedural are, then, only half-correct. In the more obvious way in which the claim might be intended or understood, the amalgamation of different sources of visual information – CCTV, on-board police videos, Brian’s own camera, and so on – is less innovative than distracting. One wonders if Ayer could have had a little more trust in the material itself, especially as the central relationship that drives the film depends on the acting clout of Gyllenhaal and Peña and not on the fussy rhythms of a fly-on-the-wall doc (that said, there is humour in some of the silences left by jump-cuts). The chemistry between these two performers is of such winning depth that the decision to have Brian’s character make a self-reflexive “day in the life of” project is aesthetically intrusive and narratively problematic. What the film does achieve is a watchable, humanising dynamic between two close friends, whose daily correspondence contains all the contradictory, racial, sexual and gender prejudices you might expect from two beat cops who, as Brian tells us at the outset, are employed to preserve the law even if they don’t necessarily always agree with it.

[Originally posted on 13 October at Front Row Reviews.]