I am not sure when the cop buddy movie genre started, exactly, but it is one of the most parodied kinds of film there are. So much so that the earnest cop buddy genre has all but disappeared. One pleasure in watching this kind of film is discovering the ways various filmmakers enliven it. For better or worse, the “knight in shining armor” police officer is a thing of the distant past, and every modern police story is touched by noir, The French Connection or Serpico. Training Day is a great example of what the modern buddy movie has evolved into.
End of Watch is written and directed by David Ayer, the writer of Training Day. The film’s scope is similar to Training Day, it focuses on the daily activities of patrol cops Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena) as they deal with an escalating turf war in their city. In some ways, this film is an update of Colors, though both Brian and Mike have more optimism for the neighborhood and people on their beat. As it becomes clear that a violent cartel is coming up from Mexico, these cops stand on tenuous common ground with the devil they know.
Mike and Brian are true believers, supporting each other’s faith in the thin blue line as it is tested by disillusioned comrades, superior federal agents and the many guns pointed in their direction. David Ayer’s film anticipates what the audience is expecting in a movie like this, and many plot points suggest multiple plots we’ve seen before. Is Brian the ambitious cop who breaks ranks to chase down a criminal gang, at the risk of losing his career? Is Mike going to face a crisis of loyalty between his brothers in blue and his cultural roots? Will both of them lose their ideals as their faith is not rewarded by the system?
All of these things are suggested, but they are not the main thread of the story and this makes the film feel more “real” than the amateur documentary work shot by Brian that is woven into the film. All of these plot intimations may well be true, might have happened, but any future which might have been is lost in a blood-stained alley. We don’t know where their work may have lead, because their work is irreversibly ended. What is often a late second act scene of a regular buddy movie is the point where this film stops. The story doesn’t end, it is stopped, and this is handled deftly by David Ayers’ team.
As I said earlier, the camera gimmicks in this film mostly got in the way of the story. The perspective didn’t add much to the scenes, and often clashed with more polished filmmaking elsewhere. This isn’t really shot “documentary style”; this is a narrative film which incorporates verite formal elements. The Paranormal Activity films follow the same form, and no one would say they look like documentaries. Besides, the only footage that Brian shoots (as opposed to the vest cam he’s rigged up) is of him and Mike goofing around the station or in their squad. He’s not doing hard-nosed journalism. There are few moments when the POV is effective, one of these a brief but intense shoot-out captured by dash cam.
Jake Gyllenhaal does a lot of work bringing Brian to life. There is a sense of authenticity to him, and much of his backstory can be deduced by the subtleties of his performance. I knew he had been a marine long before this was mentioned in the film. Mike is strangely out of place, though. He’s played as an eager young cop, perhaps more green than Brian, and somehow less in touch with the citizens around them. There are moments where this becomes a point of plot, but it’s not a point made strong enough to explain why it’s so prevalent in the movie.
The movie’s best moments revolve around the cast of miscreants which make up the criminal world which surrounds Brian and Mike. Big Evil (Maurice Compte) is played with cruelty and contempt, a chaotic storm of violence which is out of the cop’s league. The rest of Big Evil’s barely controlled gang are drawn from life, could easily pass on many urban street corners as the real deal. A POV segment which concludes with a drive-by shooting shows how that technique can work, and how much character can be worked into one short scene. Too Tall (Zone) is a source of conflict and uneasy collaboration, an entertaining and particular take on a character type seen in other urban dramas.
Like many things, I don’t think a movie can ever really show what it’s like to be a cop in Los Angeles. A film can recreate moments that are remembered, can present impressions of situations experienced, but its sensory limitations and finite duration make it much closer to a passing dream. Reality in the realm of cinema is just a marketing term. A realistic film is one that summons authentic emotions in reaction to simulated human behavior. As much as End of Watch gets in its own way trying too hard to be real, the strength of performances and storytelling make the merciless conclusion resolve as genuine emotion. Do we really want it to be any more real than that?