Silver Screen: End of Watch ****
Say one thing about David Ayer: He knows his wheelhouse. The screenwriter behind Training Day and the solid James Ellroy adaptation Dark Blue makes cop movies like he's only got eight more years of doing so until he can retire to the suburbs with a nice pension and maybe get an easy job making movies about security guards or home-security system installers.
Ayer's directorial debut, Harsh Times, cast Christian Bale as a well-trained hothead who personified the thin line between cop and crook. The followup, the passable but disappointing Ellroy-inspired Street Kings, tread similar waters but sank into outlandishness thanks in part to miscast star Keanu Reeves. Ayer's latest, End of Watch, is another cop movie, but it's an aesthetic and thematic diversion from his previous work, and though it's a bit uneven represents a significant improvement.
The scale is smaller in End of Watch, which adopts a docu-drama style in an ode to the daily rhythms of policework. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña costar as partners Brian Taylor and Mike “Z” Zavala, who patrol the toughest neighborhoods in L.A. Taylor is an intense ex-Marine working his way through law school, while Z is a more self-assured family man. The two share a bond, the profundity of which is aptly demonstrated by a lot of seemingly childish ball-busting banter. End of Watch is at its best when capturing the thinly veiled brotherly love behind the partners' casually feisty conversation. Ayer has a keen ear for naturalistic patter and the way glib humor operates as a necessary shield between men and the dangerous jobs they occupy. A lively sermon from Z mocking Taylor over white people's banal small talk can suddenly be interrupted by a call, and within seconds the tone has shifted to deadly serious business, while the mordant jokes remain as a necessary buffer.
End of Watch does follow the men after work to examine their family lives, but mostly in service of understanding how their characters function on the job. Still, the fairly brief scenes of the men at home dancing at weddings or having dinner with their wives are well-executed and lend emotional weight to later scenes that could otherwise play simply as shoot-em-up action. Natalie Martinez and especially Anna Kendrick do some critical work here with limited screen time.
End of Watch stumbles only when it strays from Taylor and Zavala to focus on their antagonists, an almost absurdly profane, nihilistic arm of a Mexican drug cartel. A side story about the cops' escalating tensions with the cartel becomes increasingly prominent as the film becomes more plot-driven in the final act, and it's a mistake. The scenes not only lack the resonance of the rest of the material, it's pretty inessential. The tragedy looming over our heroes has already been heavily foreshadowed in subplots with other cop characters, so spending time with the bad guys is both unnecessary and distracting, and the resolution to their conflict is the movie's lone absurdity.
Ayer also makes a slight misstep in achieving documentary-style filmmaking by turning End of Watch into half of a found-footage film, like Cloverfield meets Colors. Taylor carries around a digital video recorder to document his experience for a film class he's taking as his law-school art elective course, and he affixes records to their lapels to capture the first-person perspective. But, preposterously enough, Ayer only sticks with the found footage motif about half the time, the other half opting to simply shoot the thing closeup with shaky, hand-held cameras. The latter approach is every bit as effective as the former, so why even bother with the pseudo-documentary conceit? That mistake is further magnified by pointlessly equipping the villains with their own camera just to complete the motif, even though the film has little to nothing to say about voyeurism or self-awareness in the age of digital media.
Still, End of Watch's shortcomings are easily overlooked. It's a finely acted, consistently suspenseful, character-driven workplace drama that humanizes its heroes rather than worships them, and it's all the more stirring because of that.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.