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Review: End of Watch – Captivating cop drama, despite gimmicks

End of Watch - © 2011 Sole Productions, LLCLaw enforcement officers of one type or another have probably inspired more movies and television shows than any other profession there is. Whether the cops are good, bad, dumb, smart, old or futuristic – the movie-going public seems to be endlessly fascinated by men & women with a badge. End of Watch is the latest contribution to the police-drama genre and despite its flaws is one of the best I’ve seen in a long time.

End of Watch follows the lives of two cops in a documentary film style that is reminiscent of the television show Cops, but with much better actors and dialogue.  The partners patrol a crime-ridden section of South Central Los Angeles and this film is a character study of the two police officers and the brother-like bond that is forged by putting their lives on the line every day.

Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a war veteran and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña) is from the same mean streets that they are now patrolling. The film starts with the partners in a high-speed chase, pursuing gang members who shoot at the officers when they are finally stopped. The cops kill the suspects and are suspended until an investigation can be completed.

The story then picks up several weeks later when Brian & Mike are reinstated and their names are cleared. The film spans space & time in a liberal manner and its narrative often jumps days, weeks or even months at a time, making it hard to keep track of exactly how much time has passed.

A good portion of this film’s narrative takes place in the cab of a patrol car where the interaction between the two cops rings as real and true as anything I’ve ever seen on film. Gyllenhaal and Peña deliver masterful performances and were completely believable in their roles as young cops who have already acquired a lifetime worth of experience.

End of Watch - © 2011 Sole Productions, LLCThe better part of this movie is just watching these two professionals go about their daily lives. The partners do their jobs so good that they eventually start to butt heads with a violent Mexican drug cartel that starts feeling the pinch. The cartel put out a hit on the two cops and the film ends in an unusual way for a movie of this type, but the cartel’s kill order is not even talked about until the last quarter of the film.

Writer/Director David Ayer is said to have grown-up on the streets of South Central Los Angeles and having also written Training Day and Harsh Times, he certainly seems to have a feel for L.A’s ugly underside. End of Watch is gritty, disturbing, political and realistic, but it also is a loving nod to the loyalty and brotherhood shared by fraternities like the police and the military.

While I liked this movie a lot, one aspect I was not too keen with was the way in which the filmmakers tried to incorporate the found footage camera gimmickry of the style originated by the The Blair Witch Project. This method of film-making is fine when it’s original and serves a purpose, but the trick has been driven into the ground.

End of Watch - © 2011 Sole Productions, LLCGyllenhaal’s character is constantly recording the events surrounding his life as a police officer. It’s for a “project” of some type that is never fully explained. He is told repeatedly by his superiors and peers to stop recording – but he continues anyway – otherwise there would be no movie. The Mexican gang members (who are portrayed in a slightly hyperbolic manner) are ALSO shooting video that is used to piece this movie together. Here’s a rule of thumb – if you have to constantly bring attention to the fact that someone is creating this film footage (for whatever reason) – then it’s probably a bad idea to make your film in this manner.

When filmmakers are determined to use this found footage method they must realize that there are rules established in that you are limited to the found footage. In End of Watch, director David Ayer apparently decided to ignore those rules and his film is interspersed with aerial shots and Hollywood style cutaways that completely blow away any sense of believability that these scenes were shot by any of the characters in this movie.

The sad thing is that Ayer has a tight script with incredible actors and he obviously has the skills to create a great film – why he chose to make this movie as a pseudo-documentary is a mystery. But if you just enjoy the ride and forget the aggravation of trying to make sense of HOW this footage was found and WHY it was shot, End of Watch is an intense edge-of-your-seat ride that immerses you into a world that most of us will never know. Grade: 7/10

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About the author

Bob Leeper

Bob Leeper is the co-owner and manager of "Arizona’s Pop Culture and Alternative Art Network," Evermore Nevermore. He is the co-creator of the pop culture events Steampunk Street and ENCREDICON, and is a member of the Phoenix Film Critics Society. He also curates the Facebook fan site The Arizona Cave – AZ Fans of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and is one of the few brave and bold fans of Jar Jar Binks.