End of Watch

4 out of 5

Directed by: David Ayer

David Ayer seems to know the trenches of a cop’s life.  When his writings on this are adapted by other directors, Ayer’s gritty lingo and normalizations of extremes can come across a little forced; when Ayer himself is handling his work, marrying it to to strict of a narrative – Harsh Times – can also seem forced, and then trying to expand his style into a broader action template (Bright, Suicide Squad) doesn’t necessarily match.

End of Watch was the best vehicle for both Ayer the writer and Ayer the director: it’s inclusion of a “do you mind if I film this for a class project?” excuse for first person cameras is a little weak, but it provides the right point of view for the mix of casual and professional banter needed to make the dialogue come across as crisp and organic, as we watch cops Brian (Jake Gyllenhall) and Mike (Michael Peña) drive around the streets of L.A. and confront some especially daunting criminals and dangerous situations.  This is nearly the entirety of the movie: Brian narrating to his camera; the duo talk about life and love; they get a call and they do what they do.  But instead of coming across as a feature length COPS episode, Ayer adds a later of character development – or rather, the viewer’s understanding of the characters – by ticking the passage of time via the progress of Brian’s relationship to his girlfriend (Anna Kendrick), and Mike’s daughter’s birthday, and then the birth of a new child.  These are brilliantly backgrounded elements that both bring us into the leads’ lives and also give the movie a sense of progress, as it could otherwise be one long day and night on patrol, and provides a believable counteracting balance to some of the miseries Brian and Mike witness while on the job.  Combined with the fact that these two dudes – and they are dudes – are very human, and generally “good” humans, who stay dedicated to their respective others, and want to see a righting of wrongs, End of Watch is incredibly absorbing, and thus moving, and terrifying, as we’re right alongside people we come to care about while they’re in the middle of situations where the outcome is, at least in part, luck.

That the movie has to conclude with a big shootout is where Ayer gives in to some of his action movie indulgences a bit too much, but Gyllenhall and Peña, both delivering career-best performances, help to keep it grounded.

I skipped End of Watch when it came out.  Training Day – when Ayer first really shot to attention – didn’t work for me, and several of Ayer’s flicks I’ve seen since have been similarly underwhelming.   While Ayer may, by my reading, have limited applications for his style, finding the right match for it resulted in a legitimately great film.