We all know handheld camera movies are shit; The Blair Witch Project was shit, Paranormal Activity was shit, Cloverfield was shit, and yes that home movie of your kid’s birthday party is probably shit as well; so what makes End of Watch (yet another handheld camera film cashing in on the gimmick that makes it easy to make a movie on a shoestring-budget) worth watching? The fact it’s a surprisingly real, worthwhile, film about a side of the L.A.P.D. we don’t see often enough.
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal (Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time) and Michael Peña (The Shield) as a couple of brutish, hot-headed, young, up-and-coming, L.A.P.D. officers who’re out to impress and clean up the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles, End of Watch follows the dynamic duo as they go through their day-to-day lives in the force; playing pranks on fellow officers, shooting perps, filling in paperwork, drinking cups of coffee, and riding around in their squad car cracking-wise and talking about each others lives; which just so happen to land them on the wrong side of a gangland hitlist.
For a long time it feels as if nothing is happening in End of Watch; sure they’re pulling down their fair share of arrests, Taylor (Gyllenhaal) is moving his relationship up to the next level, and they’re coming into contact with some truly disturbing crime scenes, but the documentary style (a term used very loosely here) of the movie means it’s a slow burner (perhaps too slow for many audiences), and so it takes some time before the story really hits home.
When it does hit home however, End of Watch is fantastic; it shouldn’t spoil too much to say the boys stumble onto some cartel business, and end up with a hit on their lives. It all leads to a brilliant ambush where the two ‘heroes’ are out matched, out gunned, and truly fighting for their lives, and the impressive finale is quite possibly the only place where the handheld camera effect wholly enhances a film; really exacerbating the sense of danger and feeling of dread the pair are feeling, and by the end of the film you’ll really care what happens to them, and want them to make it out alive.
Yet it’s not just the wholly believable performances from both Gyllenhaal and Peña (who’re both great in their roles and every bit the boyish cops one would imagine line the ranks of the real life L.A.P.D.) that make you care for them, but the fantastic script which comes from writer/director David Ayer; a man who literally grew up on the mean streets of South LA, and who, after writing and directing Training Day, is a true powerhouse of LAPD based cinema; and it’s the fact that here he doesn’t show us a couple of guns-blazing heroes, but two everyday sorts caught up in things they don’t deserve to be caught up in, and lets us spend so much of the movie riding around in the car with these two, hearing them talk bullshit, reminisce, dream of futures with their families, and make fun of each other, that we see they’re real people, and want them to be ok.
What isn’t okay, or totally ok anyway (because the ambush scene was brilliant), is the handheld camera/found footage style the film was shot in; not only will it make it much harder for many viewers to get into the film, but it simply doesn’t make sense; we’re given a couple of throwaway lines where Taylor says it’s for “a project” and just expected to take that as the norm. What really doesn’t make sense though, is the sheer volume of people that’re carrying around these bloody video cameras (and cameras with surprising quality as well); say we accept Taylor’s got his project, how’re we also meant to accept that several gangland thugs are also filming everything they do? It might be handy for giving us different angles (but a number of them are totally implausible), and letting us know a few things we need to hear from bad-guy-land, but it’d also be a Godsend for any prosecutor to lay his hands on.
Still, ignoring the fairly nonsensical way in which it was filmed (a better way would have been to mirror the near documentary technique used in The Shield), End of Watch was a great movie. A man’s movie no doubt, but a great one. It’s a thoroughly character driven piece, with some great action, and a truly tense and gripping finale, that succeeds thanks to some solid acting, another great script from David Ayer, and the fact that it shows us something we barely ever see; L.A. cops that aren’t corrupt – these are just two normal guys, trying to do their duty, and landing in a brutal and violent world. If you can get past the handheld style, and the slow build-up, the payoff might be kind of predictable, but it’s more than worth the wait.
It seems as though everyone and their drug-pushing granny has a great quality, handheld/pin-on video camera in L.A., as the video is surprisingly good. Sure it’s littered with problems that would drag any other movie downhill, but all the artifacing, noise, crush, and aliasing you can see is all intentional, fits the looks and tone of the film, and doesn’t spoil the fairly stable contrast, generally strong detail, and natural looking skintones that accompany the film’s rich textures. It’s far from perfect, but for a handheld camera flick, it’s presentation seems excellent.
Those cameras also seems to come with fantastic microphones, as the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that accompanies End of Watch is also very strong. Perhaps unbelievably so; as while the dialogue may fall prey to background noise now and then there’s never anything of consequence that’s difficult to hear, everything appears perfectly prioritized, and the sub woofer gets a real workout during the more action-packed sequences.
There’s plenty of strong directionality, constantly active rear channels (providing a fully immersive feeling), and a fairly wide range of audible noises that may not create the most realistic film (given the entire movie is supposedly coming from cheap-ass handheld cameras and no real sound equipment), but do create a realistic, involving, soundfield that fully enhances everything the pair experience on screen.
A number of short promotional featurettes begin the selection of special features that accompany the End of Watch Blu-ray release, and are rounded out with nothing more than an audio commentary (which is actually a surprisingly good listen, and consists of Ayer going into great depth on everything about the film; actors’ performances, authenticity, shooting style, etc.), and a rather extensive selection of deleted scenes/alternate takes (clocking in at around 3/4 of an hour, and containing a few gems amongst the fluff), that may be worth a look, but aren’t anything too original or spectacular.
The Bottom Line:
End of Watch isn’t a film for everyone, hell even a lot people who tend to like their L.A. cop dramas may struggle with it; it’s a handheld camera film that has some real caricature B-characters, numerous believability issues with the filming style, and a story that’s a bit of a slow burner. But if you stick with it, the knowledge and passion from writer/director David Ayer shines through, the performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña are excellent, and the relationship that evolves between the two will have you really caring for the duo, and become fully immersed in the excellent and explosive climax. It’s worth watching for the ambush scene alone, and it’s great to finally see a film about the L.A.P.D. without corruption being the main issue. Not a film you’ll want to watch again, but one that’s well worth a rent.