Review by The Isolated Moviegoer:
In David Ayer’s LAPD thriller End of Watch, seemingly everyone has a video camera. From the black gangs, to the Mexican cartel, to the cops, actions are being recorded… and somehow compiled to make this larger film. The non-traditional approach requires a little adjustment time and suspension of disbelief, and though it produces a great deal of intimate triumphs, it’s also the source of some major issues that nearly topple the film.
From the opening white-knuckle chase scene, captured via a police cruiser’s windshield surveillance, Ayer establishes that video footage is a fact of law enforcement. Riding along with officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena), the camera angles mirror that of vehicle scenes from “The Office,” capturing chatter straight ahead and from the edges of the dashboard in the same low-res glory. Outside of the car and under the guise of a film class taken in conjunction with law school, Taylor carries a camera and outfits his and Zavala’s front shirt pockets with Flip Video recorders to more covertly document their work.
As depicted through this variety of video sources, the rapport between Gyllenhaal and Pena is the film’s bread and butter. The pair show all the signs of a longstanding familiarity and serve as a refreshing anchor in an otherwise hackneyed genre. The Flips record their professional interaction on a variety of dispatches (house fire, crackhead’s missing children, etc.) and combined with their loose candid moments in the squad car, a genuine, well-rounded sense of friendship and partnership emerges.
While documenting such a rich relationship, the intimate access also leads to its share of problems. The Flips offer a gritty, first-person look into police work, and their simplicity ratchets up the tension as we go into each situation blind as the cops, ready to jump at the slightest noise. Such authenticity would be difficult to capture and relay without the chest-level footage, but even so, the camerawork (or lack thereof) is often nauseatingly shaky to the point of incomprehension. An early tussle between Zavala and a gangster is especially swirly. The urgency of the showdown is evident and puts the audience in the middle of the fight, but after more than a few seconds of jittery action, the approach just feels lazy.
Camera woes continue as End of Watch progresses. To distance itself from an episode of “COPS,” the film manages to cobble together a plot involving the Mexican cartel putting a hit on our heroes. Handheld camerawork from the enemy’s side serves as a convenient mirror to Taylor’s constant filming and keeps the style consistent, at least for a little while. With increasing frequency, however, footage from mysterious sources makes its way into the film. Whereas before, Ayer has made each segment’s origin painfully clear, suddenly scenes are shot outside of these confines, begging the question as to who exactly is doing the filming.
The quality of camerawork from these unseen cinematographers is among the film’s steadiest, but distances itself from the established video sources. As the new 3rd person style takes over, the lack of continuity creates arguably more of a distraction than the Flips. A glimpse of Taylor and his girlfriend (Anna Kendrick) getting intimate on his bed comically raises the possibility of a friend making a sex tape. (Wouldn’t tripod footage or amateur handheld work further Ayer’s style?) Then in the harrowing final scenes, Ayer relies on new angles to capture footage that, left to the Flips, would have gone unseen. These scenes appear necessary for the story to be effectively told, but abandoning the supposedly important early style makes the whole concept seem meaningless.
Even so, the central relationship and the style’s inherent intrigue are enough to make End of Watch compelling. It’s also surprisingly funny as the improvised cop banter grants some much-needed levity to an otherwise grisly subject. Dramamine is, however, not included with the price of admission, so be sure to pop a few before entering this shaky portrait of the LAPD.
Rated R for strong violence, some disturbing images, pervasive language including sexual references, and some drug use.
End of Watch is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.
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