TIFF Review: 'End of Watch'
Gyllenhaal and Peña protect and swerve, but does action mean drama?
Written and directed by David Ayer, whose writing or direction (or both) of films like "Training Day," "Street Kings" and "S.W.A.T." suggests, even to the less perceptive, an affinity for dramas about the L.A. Police Department, "End of Watch" is somehow gripping and empty, a film that confuses hurtling momentum for forward motion. It's affecting, to be sure, and Ayer's shooting style, about which more later, puts you right in the thick of things; after the film, though, I was left that beyond the thick of things, Ayer's film is thinner than first impressions suggest.
Our heroes are Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña), partnered in a black-and-white in "Shootin' Newton," a notorious L.A. precinct. Brian's a striver, taking pre-law -- and he has an art elective, filmmaking, so he's surreptitiously taping everything with a camcorder or, when brass frowns, small wireless cameras clipped to he and Mike's shields. Between the film's use of cop-car dash cams, Brian's gadgets and other lenses -- camera phones, long-distance infrared surveillance video -- Ayer pieces what he must have intended as a symphony of street-level policing out of fragments of faux found footage. But it should also be noted that this conceit is notable in both observance and the breach; early on, we get a fast angle from outside the car where no camera would, or could be. And as Ayer makes his story "immersive" and "real" through a strained and sloppy device, you wonder why he didn't simply make a movie instead of gluing together the tenuous parts of a device.
Brian takes being a cop seriously -- it's his voice-over, at the start, intoning such true-blue homilies as "I may not agree with the law, but I will enforce it" and observing how he's part of a band of brothers. And Mike takes being a cop seriously, too, but he's a little more fun. Asked why he became a cop, Mike's sincere: "I was a stoner working at my uncle's muffler shop, and Gabby said she wanted to marry me, and being a cop is a good job to make money if you haven't been to college …" And to be fair, Brian's a funny guy too. They're both funny, likable, working guys. So is my uncle Tom, and I don't think a movie about him would have much dramatic tension, either.
Brian and Mike soon find themselves unearthing the Hydra-heads of a Mexican gang, with activities ranging from drug dealing to human trafficking to wholesale mutilation; Ayer's quick to demonstrate a difference between South Central's ordinary decent African-American criminals (like Cle Sloan's Mr. Tre) and the snarling, nameless-and-motiveless murderous malignant Mexican mobsters Brian and Mike are tracking. A lot of Ayer's film is, accidentally, about the social ramifications of what happens when you make it easier to get an AK-47 than a job, and the film's debut in Canada -- where the reverse is true -- is somewhat puzzling. I can't really say if Ayer's portrait of the life-and-death shootouts on the mean streets of L.A. are realistic or not, but I do know that Brian and Mike find enough bodies, and body parts, to fill Dodger stadium. I know Ayer's not making a documentary, and I know Ayer made the film he wanted to make, not the film I wanted him to make. But I am still wrapping my head around the structure and sensibility of the film he did make, and find myself puzzled as often as I am satisfied.
Part of it is that Mike and Brian, unlike Ayer's previous swaggering monsters or righteous hardasses, are just, in the end, good cops. On a narrative level, the film's loaded with such ominous portent that Mike and Brian might as well spend the majority of the film engaged in that great cop movie "two days 'till retirement!" cliché, swapping pictures of the boats and wives they intend to finally enjoy soon. I do not demand that every drama about the L.A.P.D. focus on corruption or brutality, but I do ask that a drama about the L.A.P.D. be dramatic; aside from the violence (or the promise of it), there's no real plot here; the film may as well just be called "The Non-Adventures of the Two Nice Cops who Did Not Deserve The Bad Thing That Happens."
Rudyard Kipling, in his poem "Tommy," published in 1890, offers a lament from the perspective of British enlisted soldier Tommy Atkins: "It's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Chuck him out, the brute!"/But it's "Savior of his Country" when the guns begin to shoot …" "End of Watch," essentially, is a longer-form version of that sentiment -- in no small part a discussion of the hard work of keeping a society going, and how we under-pay and under-appreciate cops -- but when the film ends with a dedication to the men and women of the L.A.P.D., it's hard not to to confuse "End of Watch" with the Army recruiting-commercial "film" "Act of Valor."
But Peña's scenes with his wife, Natalie Martinez, and Gyllenhall's with his girl Anna Kendrick, have warm and relatable moments. And Gyllenhall and Peña have chemistry together and charisma individually. "End of Watch," with its style and sleaze and action and suspense, will leave you with a great sense of how Ayer feels about L.A.'s truest, blue-st cops; its directorial energy and very suggest that if Ayer weren't interested in that one color, and offered some different shades to the viewer, he could have given the audience a story and a movie instead of just well-intentioned and extremely engaging manipulation and myth-making.