What’s better than one GST staff writer’s perspective on a film? How about two? For this round of Double-Take reviews, Bill and Andrew crack their knuckles and dig into David Ayer’s latest street cop drama, End of Watch:
By Andrew Crump:
If insanity can truly be defined as doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results, then Einstein would’ve immediately pegged David Ayer as a bona fide lunatic. Since his runaway success with Training Day in 2001, Ayer has done nothing but write and, more recently, direct crime films set in Los Angeles at large or South Central in the specific, crafting narratives that are embedded either in gang or police culture. Matters of corruption and loyally crop up with regularity in each, and while some prove more than satisfactory (Dark Blue), most of them are disposable knock-offs of his preceding works; one might go so far as to see them as attempts at recapturing his success from eleven years ago.
Then again, maybe Ayer is neither loony nor yearning to reattain his past glory. Maybe he’s just a perfectionist trying to get the same story just right. If so, End of Watch certainly represents a significant step up from much of his post-Training Days efforts, and could well be the best story he’s delivered since that film’s release. But that just makes the problems with the film’s presentation that much more visible. If the faux-verite styling of found footage can heighten the terror of a horror film when done well, then it stands to reason that it could be used to similar effect in a gritty street cop drama, and to End of Watch‘s credit, sometimes the rampant shaky cam works. Conversely, it more often doesn’t, and so the story of officers Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala loses much of its impact to Ayer’s appalling visual grammar.
And that’s a shame, because Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Zavala (Michael Peña) share a wonderful, moving brotherhood with one another. We’re given to wonder about the nature of their bond courtesy of an abrupt, violent first impression, but they’re not men who find common ground only in police work and shoot outs. Quite the contrary; alone, the pair talk more about family life and their romantic relationships than they do about patrolling their beat. They rag on each other. They play pranks on their fellow cops. They share their concerns, their hopes, and their fears with one another. Certainly, they take their profession seriously– if the opening sequence establishes anything, it’s that Taylor and Zavala face death every day of their lives– and End of Watch has no shortage of action beats in which these two softies prove why they’re such hotshots in their precinct. But this isn’t a film obsessed with the wholesale glorification of tough-guy macho heroics. It’s a movie that tells us it’s okay for men of their bent to have real emotions.
That study unfolds in a sprawl which reflects the timbre of Ayer’s narrative. End of Watch has a reliable through-line, but it’s loosely structured; think Polisse but removed from Paris, slightly less scattershot, and with fewer characters. And with a more tangible overarching plot. Maïwenn’s masterful, humanist police drama is fueled almost entirely by her characters, whereas Ayer instead throws his two South Central cops into the path of a Mexican drug cartel. Turns out that Taylor and Zavala are so good at what they do that they earn the ire of an unnamed gang involved in narcotics peddling and human trafficking. The yarn Ayer spins out of this conflict is satisfying enough, and both Gyllenhaal and Peña give performances that are nothing short of outstanding– End of Watch very much rides on their chemistry– but all of the film’s best merits are ultimately undone by sloppy construction and misfired aesthetics.
By Bill Graham:
Sometimes a film is so utterly well-executed that even if it explores things you have seen before, they end up profoundly affecting. A large part of what makes End of Watch such an enjoyable film is the two leads, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña, who will put you through the gamut of emotions as you enjoy the rollercoaster ride. Cop dramas have a habit of falling into well-worn tracks, but the director manages to smartly steer out of those ruts. Because of that, there is an intensity to the entire runtime that permeates through the patrols and even the downtime sequences. Put simply, this is just a well made film that is incredibly affecting.
When the duo stumble upon a cartel’s storehouse, things start to take on a horror atmosphere that is unexpected and refreshing. The tension builds and you fully expect someone to jump out of the dark corners. Yet, that doesn’t happen, and instead of being a letdown it feels more like a lesson. This isn’t a horror film. This is based on real scenarios and the sad fact of life that as a cop, doing your job well can make you a target. That realization is what hit home with me. Of course, this isn’t real life, but lost in the film, your mind tends to add gravity to the actions and results.
In the end, that’s one of the best things I can say for this film. I was transported. I felt why they had to break up the intensity with their humor. Laughter is often the result of stressful situations because the opposite direction just simply isn’t something palatable. Depressed, grim comments in a grim situation? No thanks. But humor. That makes the job stomachable, even if it takes a few Red Bulls to keep you going. The other realization is that these two actors are
very different in background and outer appearance. That translates onto film. You are unlikely to choose your partner from a litter. You are given one, and they either work or they don’t And that’s a feeling you get through the film. They learn from each other. They have things to say that the other person listens to.
All of this, of course, is a part of what makes the overall experience such a quality film. They build blocks of foundation. And as the stakes are raised, we find we care what happens to them. Whether they get punched in the face, breakup with their girlfriend, or get shot at, we care. Small to big, doesn’t matter. We are invested. By the climactic conclusion, we are so into these characters that the finale becomes incredibly affecting. And in the end, the production values and everything else falls to the wayside. A pretty film doesn’t make you care. Great acting can, however, unlock a film’s potential, and my hat is off to Michael Pena and Jake Gyllenhaal for giving me a guttural reaction to their exciting, intense police thriller.