David Ayer must have pissed off a lot of cops, having exposed the dark underbelly of the Los Angeles Police Department as screenwriter of Training Day and Dark Blue, director of Street Kings and writer-director of Harsh Times. Now, in his third outing as director, Ayer returns to his native South Central neighborhood for yet another film about LA cops, and this time he comes to praise, not to bury. Maybe now he’ll stop getting pulled over and having his stop lights broken.
End of Watch starts with the promise of the cop movie equivalent of a found-footage film (or a particularly strong episode of COPS), as patrolman Brian Taylor (a Jarhead-bald Jake Gyllenhaal) staps GoPro cameras onto his own lapel, and that of his Latino partner Miguel Zavala (Michael Peña), before they head our for the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles at the beginning of their shift, or ‘watch’. Despite much opening chatter about why Taylor is filming, however – something about a media studies course he is taking before studying Law – Ayer soon starts to mix in traditional camera work and lets the characters and plot take over. Which is fine, because, although the stylistic inconsistencies are irksome, much of the rest kicks all kinds of ass.
You might think good cops would be a hell of a lot less interesting than bad cops, but Taylor/Gyllenhaal and Zavala/Peña make for an engaging pair from the get-go, ragging on each other for race-related eccentricities, playing practical jokes at the precinct house, and discussing the relative merits of wives versus girlfriends. Then they stumble onto a stash of cash, an event that initially seems designed to cement the pair’s ‘good cop’ status, but is actually linked to the plot, a minor tweak of the beat-cops-stumble-into-big-case cliché. It shouldn’t work, but it does, largely thanks to the reality-show-on-crystal-meth camerawork, and strong performances from the two leads, who keep us invested in the partners’ day-to-day lives, whether chasing bad guys through the streets of downtown LA, or attending quinceañeras. If only Ayer had had the guts to fully embrace the found-footage vibe of the first few scenes, he could have made the Chronicle or Cloverfield of cop movies. Instead, End of Watch is an above-average cop thriller that plays out largely by the numbers, yet manages to be engaging, arresting, and sporadically gripping. ★★★★