Directed by: David Ayer. Written by: David Ayer. Starring: Michael Peña, Jake Gyllenhaal, Anna Kendrick, Natalie Martinez, David Harbour, America Ferrara. Cinematography: Roman Vasyanov. Editing: Dody Dorn. Music: David Sardy, Various. Certificate: 15. Running Time: 104 minutes. Year: 2012. Rating: 7.4
David Ayer’s reputation as a writer – and more recently as a writer-director – has grown steadily since the appearance of 2001’s Training Day, despite one or two dips along the way. Although certainly not immune to box office failure, he is perceived as someone who can regularly ensure bums on seats while also occasionally enjoying a degree of critical praise, so there was little surprise when he was finally given a prestigious studio project last year (he is writing, directing and producing the upcoming Suicide Squad).
An ex-Navy officer himself, Ayer is clearly fascinated by men in service who are working under extreme pressure: his screenplays to date have mainly concentrated on male LAPD officers dealing with high-level crime (S.W.A.T., Training Day, Dark Blue, Harsh Times, Street Kings) or male soldiers operating in cramped, claustrophobic conditions during World War II (Fury, U-571), but amidst all the rampant testosterone, raised voices and re-loading of guns his scripts have included several interesting, well-written characters and have provided a degree of insight into the motivation of such individuals, as well as the sense of brotherhood often shared by colleagues. There has, by contrast, been a distinct lack of memorable female characters; often Ayer’s stories feature women who exist simply to support the men he focuses on, and they are seemingly unable to transcend their clearly-defined and old-fashioned roles as wives or girlfriends. Most of Ayer’s female characters who are not stay-at-home partners tend to be women with accentuated ‘traditional’ male characteristics, as if that’s the only way their presence in Ayer’s male-dominated worlds can be explained, or legitimized. Success is only possible for men or for women who become less feminine and more masculine.
Though End Of Watch is another entry in Ayer’s growing list of LA-set police procedurals, it has been singled out as a counterpoint to the rest, which have broadly focused on corrupt or rogue officers. The two cops we follow throughout this story – Michael Peña’s Miguel and Jake Gyllenhaal’s Brian – are far from perfect, but they are about as honest and as ethically-sound as we’re likely to see outside of an out-and-out propaganda piece; these officers do not to shoot first unless it’s absolutely necessary, and never, ever kill anyone accidentally. An early speech by a superior indicates support will not be forthcoming if any of his charges fail to abide by certain rules of conduct, and though the duo joke their way through such station briefings it’s clear that the message is received. That said, within a few minutes we see Miguel engaging Blood member Tre (Cle Sloan) unprofessionally in a fistfight when following up a complaint about anti-social behaviour, but generally Miguel and Brian are seen to be doing the right thing).
Broadly, the film is shaped by a series of vignettes that show typical (and occasionally-linked) incidents faced by the duo while patrolling the streets of South Central. Many of these are gang-related, with the Bloods portrayed as a receding force while the Sureños, who have links to the powerful Mexican Sinaloa Cartel, expand their territory. Miguel and Brian tackle house fires, pursue suspects in car chases, respond to noise complaints, find dead bodies and uncover human trafficking operations, much of which is dealt with in a calm manner by the officers, who have apparently become desensitized through experience (though they are not emotionless). For reasons that are never made clear Brian has decided to make a film about his work, so both officers wear concealed cameras. These, along with a dashboard-mounted camera in their car, mean that the film is a mix of amateur ‘found’ footage and traditional photography; Ayer even takes this approach with the film’s criminals, so we are party to their own footage (filmed on smartphones), and even surveillance videos of cartel members ordering hits (fake, of course).
As such End Of Watch occasionally resembles a particularly polished and gripping episode of a TV show like Cops, and although the handheld approach has been extensively road-tested elsewhere it made me feel as if I was in close proximity to the action, and I thought it worked well here; it is initially overused but it does help you to relate to the officers as they enter potential crime scenes, and the nervous tension in the air is palpable. Each scene was filmed from at least four different angles, with Gyllenhaal often operating one of the hand-held cameras, and in this case it does actually imbue those police procedural staples we’ve seen many times before – the car chase, the drive-by, the bust, the stop-and-search, the discovery of a dead body, the defying-the-odds shootout – with a sense of realism and a considerable, welcome freshness.
Peña and Gyllenhaal, who undertook five months of training before filming, react in a believable fashion during each of these incidents. It’s abundantly clear that they understand the work involved, and the way in which real life police officers approach it, and this makes for entertaining and involving viewing. The bond that exists between cop partners is a clear feature of the film, and therefore there are some formulaic in-car chats containing the usual blokey badinage, but the two lead performances are strong enough to keep you interested in the friendship and the film’s ending carries weight as a result. Unfortunately Anna Kendrick and Natalie Martinez, playing Brian’s wife Janet and Miguel’s wife Gabby respectively, are both sidelined and only appear in a series of scenes designed to show the passing of time (wedding days, births of children, etc.). We learn little about them other than the fact they are ‘cop wives’, and Miguel’s Best Man speech at Brian and Janet’s wedding explicitly defines them as such, even though it is intended to be a tribute: these female characters have few opinions, do not appear to have hobbies, or jobs – or at least there’s no evidence of them during the film – and instead they are just there to offer loving, dutiful, unquestioning support for their husbands. America Ferrara and Cody Horn do not fare much better as a couple of female police officers who seemingly show up to every incident after their two male colleagues have dealt with the problem at hand.
Still, the film is indisputably about two men, and despite the fact on paper it looks like a standard police film – or even an unquestioning, unapologetic celebration of the LAPD – it is in fact reasonably balanced and streets ahead of most recent cop dramas in terms of entertainment, credibility and performances. The fact is many officers are inherently good, and heroic, but I don’t think Ayer owns a pair of rose-tinted glasses and certainly wasn’t wearing any while making this tribute. Meanwhile the threat posed by the gangs and the influence of Mexican drug cartels is eye-opening, presuming there’s a degree of accuracy behind the story, and the toughness and emphasis on the changing streets of South Central makes this film as fascinating to watch as Training Day.