Considering it has such a simple concept, Dan Ayer’s (who wrote “Training Day”) “End of Watch” is a surprisingly enthralling police picture. It zips along from one beat to the next with ease; no scene or portion ever drags. It’s exciting and tense. There are scenes that are downright shocking and ones that engage you emotionally. It’s an intimate portrait of the day-to-day life of regular beat cop. And Ayer uses the ever so popular found footage device to give the film another predicted layer of realism. With that said however, it’s also this plot device—or gimmick—that holds “End of Watch” back. I’m not saying it completely ruins it but with this drawback Ayer’s movie doesn’t reach its full potential.
“End of Watch” revolves around two young cocky and naïve cops, Brian (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike (Michael Pena) in South Central Los Angeles --probably the most dangerous place for a policeman-- as they make their rounds on daily patrols. We see them interacting with each other, with numerous street hoods as well as other cops. Ayer creates a playful and convincing dynamic between the two.
A number of the scenes take place inside their squad car as they playfully rib each other about their races or their love lives, and talk seriously about family and their futures. It’s all done in a believable way; Gyllenhaal and Pena play off of each other wonderfully, saying dialogue that feels completely genuine. In fact most of their scenes look ad-libed. The most pleasant surprise of this movie is how much character development there is. And it’s the dynamic between these two cops that drives “End of Watch.” Hell, it’s practically the only thing. The whole movie is the development of their friendship.
As good as all that is though, the film still has one major unavoidable flaw: the found footage aspect turns out to be unnecessary. When I said originally that “End of Watch” is a found footage film that was only a partial truth. There are cameras in the squad car, Brian has his own video camera that he takes around to every crime scene and situation they run into (for a film school project), both Mike and Brian have mini cameras attached to their police uniforms and then there are a couple other assorted cameras throughout. But then there are many shots, shot in that handheld style that would be pretty much impossible for anyone in the movie to capture. So really what we’ve got are two similar but different methods of filmmaking: found footage and Cinema Verite, two methods that work fine on their own but separately they undermine one another.
Why not just shoot the whole thing in Cinema Verite style, if you’re only going to half acknowledge the found footage? Found footage movies can be fun but they’re also extremely limited in terms of narrative and character scope. That’s why they usually don’t hold up on repeat viewings. “End of Watch” is trying to be more ambitious, casting a wider net with its narrative and characters—the duo runs into trouble with the Mexican Drug Cartel, and we see the story partially from the POV of the main bad guys-- trying to create a greater world that movies like “Paranormal Activity” simply can’t. And the additional incorporation of the found footage holds “End of Watch” back from reaching the level of excellence it could have easily achieved.
But, it’s easy to get caught up in the exciting, suspenseful and fun experience that is “End of Watch,” and the ending, while expected, still packs an emotional punch because you’ve come to know these characters really well. “End of Watch” is a solid police drama/thriller, a hard thing to come by these days, despite the fact that it isn’t as fully realized as it could have been.