A couple of LA cops are crashing onto the London festival scene tonight.
End of Watch pairs Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña on patrol in the notorious South Central district. It’s a familiar set-up from writer-director David Ayer who also brought us ride-along cop thrillers Training Day, Street Kings and Harsh Times. However, this time he takes a slightly different angle, handing the camera over to his actors.
Officer Brian Taylor (Gyllenhaal) decides to make a video diary to the bemusement of his partner Officer Mike Zavala (Peña) and this footage is spliced with excerpts from the camera mounted, as standard, on the dashboard of their patrol car. But Ayer does cheat, taking his own camera in and out of the action when the guys need to affect the proper two-handed pistol grip.
Initially, it all feels very scattershot, but a seemingly random chain of bust ups and drive-by shootings gradually comes together, painting a blood-spattered picture of a changing criminal landscape: the African-American gangs are being turfed out of the neighbourhood by a Mexican drugs cartel. And after kicking in a few too many doors, Brian and Mike become targets.
Of course the ‘found footage’ concept has become a cliché of horror films since The Blair Witch Project – not to mention an excuse for poor production values – but here it’s a useful device for getting across the chaos and confusion that officers are faced with, attending the scene of a crime.
Still, it’s not an entirely original twist on the formula – the long-running reality show Cops must have played on Ayer’s mind as he wrote the screenplay. His film has a similar, livewire energy; a bumpy ride in places, punctuated by sudden bursts of adrenalin and lots of shouting.
Those sudden switches in pace create lots of tension, but once the brown stuff hits the fan, the constant, juddering movement of the frame tends to grate on the nerves. Ultimately, the device works best – not in the action scenes – but in the car, when the guys are just goofing around, letting off steam and dissecting each other’s love-lives.
Gyllenhaal and Pena look like they’re having a blast, for real, and someone just happened to leave the camera running. In what is, essentially, a story of friendship that rapport is paramount and the loose, documentary style brings us in on the many (foul-mouthed) jokes they share together. And it only takes a few drinks before they’re slurring the words, “I love you, man…”
Meanwhile, the women in their lives – Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air) and Natalie Martinez – have little to do but gaze on adoringly, and there’s a strange fascination with lesbian gangsters, plus a butch turn by Ugly Betty (America Ferrera) as a fellow cop, which serve little purpose. Ultimately, this film is strictly for the boys, by the boys. Steadicam operators may also want to look away.