Director: David Ayer
With studios always striving to cut costs, the handheld approach has been a crutch to keep budgets low and give audiences a reason for it. While it’s been executed with meticulous precision in films like Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity and most recently V/H/S, there are a handful that just get the device flat-out wrong.
Unfortunately End of Watch, the latest cop drama from David Ayer (Street Kings, Harsh Times), so flagrantly fails this conceit by the third or fourth scene. The rules it sets are immediately discarded. The film can never properly execute the intensity that’s bluntly driving every situation, whether it be action or simple dialogue exchanges.
In End of Watch, Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena) are two young cops patrolling the treacherous, crime-filled area of South Central, Los Angeles. Early on, the former awkwardly reveals he’s in law school and for his necessary arts credit he has taken up filmmaking, the reason he carries around a handy-cam and also places a tiny camera near he and his partner’s chest pockets. But there’s no explanation as to why we get lavish helicopter shots over Los Angeles filled with non-diegetic music moments later or POV angles from his commanding officer or a half-dozen different camera positions from inside their patrol car. While I could pinpoint these distractions in nearly every scene, I’ll try to avoid this glaring defect and focus on our story.
If you have seen Ayer’s work you know the man loves dealing in clichés, never escaping his familiar location of Los Angeles and its police/criminal underbelly. His third outing as director is no different, but at least he manages to cajole convincing performances from his two leads. Their best work comes from right inside the patrol car, as it’s the only time Ayer lets things breath. Their banter ranges from Gyllenhaal’s inability to keep a relationship, contrasted by Pena’s committed one with his wife, as well as many race-flavored jokes bandied about. The delivery from these two engaging actors is light, funny and much-appreciated when compared to life outside this safe haven.
As the duo get called to the scene, and become caught up in something way above their heads, it’s a rinse and repeat of increasingly harrowing situations. The first instance, when we seeing children being abused, it’s shocking and unsettling. Then the effect just wears down with Ayer using this rehashed tactic to reach into the depths of depravity without offering up anything new or engaging, and in turn, numbing the audience. I will commend the writer/director for attempting an audacious finale, but even that is soon undermined – and I won’t even get into the cloying, extraneous final attempt at an emotional pull.
Ayer tackles many familiar themes in Watch, such as a code of honor – handled surprisingly well in an opening scene voiceover from Gyllenhaal. While trite, he pulls of an earnest portrayal of family life as Pena deals with a baby on the way and Gyllenhaal finally finds a relationship he can invest in with Anna Kendrick, delightful as always in an small role. Unfortunately the dismal technical execution provides a new low for the handheld aesthetic, collapsing the potential for Ayer’s first worthwhile entry into the crime genre he clearly adores.
End of Watch is screening at TIFF and arrives in theaters on September 21st.
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