(by Dustin Putman
It is strange how the found-footage style of modern moviemaking didn't catch on until almost ten years after the wild success of 1999's "The Blair Witch Project." Usually a fad comes and goes in nearly as quick of succession, but ever since 2008's "Cloverfield" and 2009's "Paranormal Activity" hit it big, there have been a wave of like-minded pseudo-documentaries that place the audience in the footprints of the characters. Most of these fit comfortably within the horror genre; POV camera angles and the mystique of reality seem to naturally compliment monsters, ghosts and devil possession. In regards to "End of Watch," a strong case is made that it can also work well in police dramas. Heavy-handed but gripping, the vast majority of footage coming from handheld cameras the characters lug around or pin to the front of their uniforms, the film eventually - and coincidentally - begins to take on the appearance of a horror picture itself, one where the heat-packing, saliva-dripping villains happen to be the ruthless gangs hanging out in South Central. Writer-director David Ayers (2008's "Street Kings") clearly knows his way around L.A.-set cop movies and, if all that is dramatically different about this one is its aesthetics, that is enough to keep it from becoming old-hat. Article continues below
The plot, as it were, is relatively slack, content to put the viewer in the daily line of duty next to LAPD officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena), tight friends and partners risking their lives every day as they patrol some of Los Angeles' most violent neighborhoods. Often shooting through a lens more than firing his weapon, Brian hopes to compile footage for a new recruitment video. Stressed by the horrible things he sees all day, a ray of light in his life is girlfriend Janet (Anna Kendrick), the perfect mixture of cute and intelligent for him. While investigating a house they believe is in connection with an armed man they recently arrested, Taylor and Zavala stumble onto a Mexican drug cartel before the case is abruptly swept up by the Feds. For these two officers of the law, a greater danger unknowingly lurks in the form of a malicious, vengeance-seeking gang suspected in a drive-by shooting. Sure, they're guilty, and they are bound and determined to make Taylor and Zavala pay a steep price for sniffing their nose where it doesn't belong.
"End of Watch" massages the egos of everyday police officers while leading an outsider to wonder why anyone would want to be a member of the LAPD when they could much more peacefully work in Laguna Beach or something. Writer-director David Ayers does away with the dirty cop angle of his previous pics, casting them all in a positive light here. Indeed, there is something to be said for people willing to put themselves in harm's way in order to attempt to rid the bullet-strewn, drug-fueled streets of some very, very bad people. If the narrative viewpoint is a bit one-sided, it serves its purpose by tossing handheld cameras on the front lines of a seemingly unwinnable homeland war. Whether Brian and Mike are investigating the fishy disappearance of two children, arresting a man with more than just vegetable soup in his backseat pot, or rashly entering a burning building where three kids are in immediate danger, the audience receives a potent, never-short-of-authentic first-hand account. It's riveting if nothing else.
Jake Gyllenhaal (2010's "Love and Other Drugs") and Michael Pena (2011's "Tower Heist") share a believable camaraderie and well-oiled understanding of their onscreen professions as officers Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala. Respectful partners but also touching best friends - Brian and girlfriend Janet are there for Mike in the hospital when he and wife Gabby (Natalie Martinez) have their first child, for example - Gyllenhaal and Pena slip into their roles without allowing a speck of artifice in. As Janet, Anna Kendrick's (2011's "50/50") part is small but pivotal, providing a much-needed respite for Brian during his off-hours. If their burgeoning relationship lacks a particularly hefty deal of weight, at least two soundtrack choices help to compliment their bond during romantic times - Mazzy Star's "Fade Into You" - and fun times - a car sing-along to Cam'ron's "Hey Ma" as they drive to Vegas for the weekend. Also solid in supporting turns: America Ferrera (2010's "Our Family Wedding") and Cody Horn (2012's "Magic Mike") as fellow officers Orozco and Davis, and newcomer Yahira 'Flakiss' Garcia, chillingly aloof as cold-hearted female gang member La La - a symbol of what Ferrera's Orozco fled from to make something better of herself.
"End of Watch" climaxes with a set-piece as horrifying as any horror film, Taylor and Zavala lured to an apartment building unaware that they've become the latest targets in a place where there are few routes of escape. Stranded on foot and unable to properly call for back-up, they are faced with a cop's worst nightmare. It's cruel and brutal and violent and completely pointless - that's the whole point - but director David Ayers lessens the impact with an implausible deus ex machina occurrence that is then followed up by a tacked-on last scene. It's both too much and too dishonestly hopeful for what has come before it (if the ending is a case of studio interference, it wouldn't be surprising). Nevertheless, when "End of Watch" works, it compels with an immediacy few filmmakers can hope to achieve. It's worth stepping over the occasional indiscretions to get to the good stuff.