Even if End of Watch had turned out to be a bad film, I still would have respected it. In both his script and his directing style David Ayer gambles constantly, be it in the way he decides to shoot a particular scene or help the audience get a better understanding of the central characters, and it's impressive how many of those gambles pay off. It’s those chances that Ayer takes that separate his movie from the standard cop drama, elevating it to be a great one.
These risks start at the most basic story levels, as End of Watch isn’t a movie about two cops fighting evil in South Central Los Angeles, but instead about two men, Officer Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Officer Zavala (Michael Pena), who have a pure bond of friendship and loyalty as officers in the L.A.P.D. Rather than having every scene feature Taylor and Zavala breaking down doors, firing off guns and talking about their mission to stop the big bad gang leader, Ayer instead slows everything down and gives the audience a chance to look into the characters’ lives as more than just officers, but also people, attending weddings and quinceaneras. The timeline stretches over a number of months so we watch the relationship between Taylor and his girlfriend (Anna Kendrick), while also seeing Zavala’s wife (Natalie Martinez) give birth to their first son. A through line has the policemen on the heels of some serious evil developing in the city, but Ayer lets it unfold slowly, bouncing back and forth between the different universes of the characters’ lives and placing more importance on the audience understanding who these men are than anything else.
End of Watch is a story about two partners, and Ayer couldn’t have done better casting them than Gyllenhaal and Pena. When Taylor and Zavala are riding around on patrol it feels as though Ayer sent the two actors out for a drive with a camera and told them to just speak naturally in character. Their banter is quick-witted but real, the characters discussing the cons of dating a Latin woman (due mostly to the ridiculous number of quinceaneras that you’ll have to attend), white people and coffee, and dealing with their respective significant others. The officers are as tight as brothers and there isn’t a single moment in the movie where you question it. Both Gyllenhaal and Pena put on brilliant performances, but it’s their chemistry that makes the movie work as well as it does.
End of Watch’s cinematography purports that it’s a found footage movie, but it's decidedly not one. At the start it’s explained that Taylor is taking a film class and making a project about his life as a police officer, which gives Ayer the ability to do a lot of handheld shots and first person perspective. While many directors would say, “Okay, this is the aesthetic of our movie,” Ayer says, “Screw that,” and peppers scenes with establishing shots and third person perspective – again, he takes a lot of chances. By breaking convention and ignoring limitation he ends up delivering the audience a hard look at the unique, rough streets of South Central while also capitalizing on the grittiness, realism and intensity that comes with found footage. They work in harmony and the effect is dazzling.
After my screening of End of Watch I almost felt compelled to speed just so that I would get pulled over and I would have an opportunity to say, “Thank you.” Ayer has spent just about his entire career chronicling tales of the L.A.P.D., with movies like Training Day, The Fast and the Furious, Dark Blue and Harsh Times, but this movie is something more-- intense, gripping, funny, and absolutely fantastic.