End of Watch tries, and fails, to hide its cliches

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Writer/director David Ayer applies the blues and twos once again in End of Watch, his latest police procedural following the likes of Dark Blue and Training Day (which he scripted and for which Denzel Washington won an Oscar).

It’s a familiar beat for Ayer and, sadly, the strain of putting a fresh spin on old cliches is starting to show. What’s even more unfortunate is that two remarkably sensitive performances are encased within the onslaught of implausible situations and crude racial stereotyping.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena are the two reasons to watch this movie, utterly believable as young cops (Taylor and Zivala, respectively) patrolling the rough streets of Los Angeles. We watch as they banter, sip coffee, discuss their relationships and, ultimately, get in over their heads after incurring the wrath of a drug cartel. The two actors are supremely convincing, allowing the little details to reach us through the tiniest of gestures (watch for Gyllenhaal’s itchy trigger figure as he prepares to get on the horn to pull somebody over).

Both actors are physically believable, full of fire and brimstone when necessary, and yet they also have a low-key graciousness that is brilliantly effective when the film moves into more personal areas. Zivala is a devoted family man and this is nicely juxtaposed with Gyllenhaal’s restless spirit, who may have found his soul-mate in the form of Janet (Anna Kendrick). These aren’t scenery-chewing performances, and nor would you want that that in a film ostensibly grounded in the workings of everyday people. Both stars are a credit to those they portray.

It’s a good thing the actors convince because credulity is stretched from the outset when Taylor explains that he will be recording his duties whilst on-patrol. He says it’s for a project of some sort although that plot angle is incredibly fuzzy and smacks of an attempt to crowbar found-footage into the narrative. Not to mention that the whole device gets lost anyway because the faux-documentary style of the rest of the movie frequently cuts away from the perspective of the central characters, betraying the whole found-footage ethos.

The film also has a hard time convincing us that in an average working week, two ordinary cops will rescue several people from a burning building, get into trouble with cartels and much more besides. It’s far more engaging when the given situation is mundane because then we get a sense of the people behind the uniforms (Taylor griping to Zivala about his endless line of quinceaneras).

At other times, it appears that the movie is utilizing jittery, Paul-Greengrass-being-keelhauled camerawork in an attempt to disguise the fact that the drama is made up of very stale ingredients. These machinations become increasingly apparent in the movie’s uglier moments, especially the poorly written thuggish villains whose evil is measured by the fact they said the ‘f’ word loads more times than our heroes. Outside of the central performances, it’s a movie in which fantasy and reality fight against each other. But thanks to Gyllenhaal and Pena, the ride-along is at least watchable.