Wow. He finally did it. After having sat through director David Ayer’s relatively lugubrious and wretchedly overwrought cop melodramas Training Day (which he wrote), Street Kings (which he directed) and Harsh Times (which he wrote and directed), I was afraid that Ayer was only capable of making plodding tales of dirty cops, possessed of a gleeful Bad Lieutenant-type amorality, taking drugs and exploiting the poor in the streets of one crime-riddled town or another. Imagine, then, my surprise at his most recent film, End of Watch, a surprisingly jaunty and solid cop drama about – get this – good cops. End of Watch is easily Ayer’s best film to date.
Employing a somewhat unneeded but still stylish found-footage aesthetic, End of Watch tells the story of a pair of uniformed street cops, Brian and Mike (Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña) as they go about their daily business chasing down speeders, preventing robberies, kneeling on the necks of guys with guns in their back seats, kicking down the odd door, and occasionally running into the fringes of more complex drug rings. There is a plot, of sorts, that ebbs and flows throughout the action, but more than that End of Watch is about the relationship between the two central characters, and how they bicker, gossip, work together, and get along. These two have a patois that they have clearly developed together over the course of several years’ work. They are co-workers, but have also become friends.
There are also some off-duty observances. Brian, for instance, is just now falling in proper love for the first time with a demure violet named Janet (Anna Kendrick), and we get to see his anxiousness over this new woman, and how he quietly asks for advice, all while trying to remain the alpha-male fratboy macho man that he is. We also see the vengeful actions of the local street gang, of course peeved at the police, plotting to assassinate one of our main characters. There is a shootout by the end, but rather than feeling like a cheap climax to provide requisite thrills, End of Watch stages it as a desperate and dangerous situation, allowing the cops to react like, well, cops. And that’s really the central strength of End of Watch: The main characters are just good guys who are good at their jobs. They swear like sailors, playfully jibe one another with sexual dares, prod their co-workers (America Ferrera and Cody Horn appear), bolster their own manhood in embarrassing ways, and occasionally do irresponsible things, but, at the end of the day, they get the job done, and stay just on this side of pissing off their boss. Just like a lot of us.
What’s more, the film is a comedy, which helps. Ayer’s previous films were all infected with a pointedly dour and pop-nihilistic tone that felt more like the affect of a broody teenager than a serious comment on corruption in the police department. End of Watch, while plenty gritty, and containing no small amount of violence, was so much refreshingly breezier than something like Training Day. Indeed, I spotted numerous parallels between this film and – so help me – the infamous Police Academy movies. And I should know, ‘cause I’ve seen all seven of those mothers. Brian was the charming wisecracker, making him Mahoney. Mike, his loyal partner, was sort of a combination of Larvell and Martin from the first Police Academy. There was a small and timid woman, still kind of a rookie, who would squeak in fear at the thought of crime, making a parallel to Hooks. There was a capable and angry gun-nut cop, giving the film a Tackleberry. Anna Kendrick was clearly Kim Cattrall. And there was even a hard-ass boss, invoking the cruelty of G.W. Bailey’s Lt. Harris. Surely I can’t be the only one to have seen this.
The film’s framing device, like all found-footage framing devices, is largely unnecessary, and has to seriously fudge certain cinematographic conceits in order to fit in an entire plot (like any found-footage film, you often ask yourself how they got that angle during a dangerous moment, or why they thought to film certain illegal actions). The conceit is that Brian is taking a filmmaking course as part of his night school. And while the hand-held camerawork does give the film a somewhat usual you-are-there feeling, it’s more vital that the characters are acting for a camera, altering their speech and jibes in order to seem cooler. Which, in a way, gives us a deeper insight into them.
End of Watch was a surprise. I liked it a lot.