Three directors working today know the crime genre better anyone. Martin Scorsese understands the criminal mind like no other; Michael Mann’s visceral work shows a deep understanding of the grey area where cops and criminals merge. His work is probably my favorite of the three; the psychological chess game where both criminal and detective have a deep unspoken respect for one another has always fascinated me more than anything. However, when it comes to the workings of the police department, it’s hard to argue that anyone portrays it more realistically than David Ayer.
Ayer’s first writing credit is the accomplished Training Day. His body of work shows that the power of the badge often drives cops to corruption. The one thing Harsh Times, Street Kings, Dark Blueand Training Day have in common is people of authority abusing their powers. With End of Watch, Ayer delves into the flip side of that coin. It’s a real love letter to the force, in particular, the good honest cops who risk their lives everyday to make their city a safer place for everyone.
This is a real challenge since the conventions of the genre have almost neglected their existence. InEnd of Watch, no one is breaking any rules. This is a micro-storyline, following Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his partner Mike Zavala (Michael Peña) as they drive by the city in patrol. Through their natural and often humorous conversations between jobs, we learn more about the men behind the badges. Ayer uses this intimacy to make his viewers care for his characters. It’s a smart move because the more we care for them, the more we fear for their fates.
End of Watch is shot in that shaky handy-cam style and this is one those rare cases where the film benefits from the realism of the documentary like style of film-making. The film’s only flaw is the source of this footage. While we’re sold on the idea of a cop filming his adventures, it’s hard to believe that criminals are doing the same. In fact, every chapter seems to be filmed by someone within the scene. At first it becomes distracting, but eventually, I embraced its purpose. After all, most of the real car chases, arrests gone wrong and conflicts we see on TV are shown old through hidden, CCTV-like footage.
While the film doesn’t follow a particular plotline, things eventually pick off when our main characters are marked for death by the cartel after they bust drugs, money, and firearms during a routine call. The film is extremely hard-hitting. It’s both humorous and downright heartbreaking at the same time. In fact, I don’t remember the last time I feared for the fate of characters on screen like I did here. I was completely absorbed, on the edge, and praying for a good outcome that only seemed more unlikely as things escalated to the slap in the face of an ending.
We’re approaching the end of the year, which means we get to see all the treasures studios have been saving up for Oscar season. End of Watch is the best cop drama in years; it’s a triumph and perhaps David Ayer’s best work yet. It’s not for the faint of heart though, and I must throw this out there. End of Watch is the real deal; graphic, shocking and gritty. If you’re still not convinced to see this film, I’ll let the powerful opening narration be your deciding factor:
“I am the police, and I’m here to arrest you. You’ve broken the law. I did not write the law. I may disagree with the law but I will enforce it. No matter how you plead, cajole, beg or attempt to stir my sympathy, nothing you do will stop me from placing you in a steel cage with gray bars. If you run away, I will chase you. If you fight me, I will fight back. If you shoot at me, I will shoot back. By law I am unable to walk away. I am a consequence. I am the unpaid bill. I am fate with a badge and a gun. Behind my badge is a heart like yours. I bleed, I think, I love, and yes, I can be killed. And although I am but one man, I have thousands of brothers and sisters who are the same as me. They will lay down their lives for me and I them. We stand watch together. The thin-blue-line, protecting the prey from the predators, the good from the bad. We are the police.”