"Watch" Misses Mark Despite Strong Elements

“End Of Watch” stings of missed opportunity as its successes and failures nearly cancel each other out. Equally ambitious and complacent, the film does a fine job of realizing a specific human condition and a cast of characters that inhabit it every day. Yet, the screenplay by writer/director David Ayer leans heavily on coincidence and a specific visual gimmick that isn’t new or executed particularly well. The resulting picture is maddeningly episodic, the story as choppy as the visuals, and it fails to serve a terrific cast and some genuinely intense scenes. What’s good is great, but the film’s flaws are bold-faced, italicized, and underlined. The punch it packs is far removed from that of Ayer’s “Training Day” – less brass knuckle, more oversized boxing glove.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña star as Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala, two South Central cops back on patrol after being cleared of wrongdoing in a shooting. Natalie Martinez plays Gabby, Mike’s wife, and Anna Kendrick plays Janet, Brian’s new girlfriend. Brian and Mike share one of the toughest beats in the U.S., and Brian notes that they’re likely to see more action in one deployment period than the average officer sees in his or her entire career. The duo is immediately identified as friendly and respectful toward the more cooperative criminals, but when they cross paths with a Mexican drug cartel, things become significantly less amicable.

Gyllenhaal does fine work, and his character is an interesting mix of tough-guy jock, rebellious teenager, and sensitive guy looking to settle down with a nice girl. It’s not much of a stretch for Gyllenhaal, but he continues to grow more confident as an actor and he gives himself over entirely to the role. Brian’s sense of duty is only matched by his love for his partner. Michael Peña is the heart and soul of the film and he gives a masterfully nuanced performance. Mike is the more laid back of the two and Peña excels at being relatable while maintaining the requisite toughness. He injects the character with numerous tics and humorous accents that go a long way in humanizing the duo amidst the bloodshed.

The film is initially presented as a faux-documentary, cut together from various dash cam, handheld, and hidden camera footage. The “found footage” angle from films like “Cloverfield” and “Chronicle” has proven to be a boon at the box office, so it’s easy to see why Ayer chose it. Regrettably, it’s nearly the downfall of the picture. By the middle of act I, it’s apparent that lots of the footage isn’t being shot by any of the characters, but by an invisible third party. It’s incredibly distracting to sway back and forth between diegetic (inside the story) and non-diegetic (outside the story) footage and I was taken out of the film again and again. The style has generally worked better in films with largely unknown casts – it makes it easier to suspend disbelief and buy into the non-fiction conceit when we don’t know the actors. Here? Not so much.

The story itself is frequently uneven. The passage of time is completely unclear and apart from the occasional scene of character-building (but inessential) banter, we jump from important event to important event. Brian and Mike have a remarkable talent for stumbling across one major crime scene after another, often by accident, and most of them relate to the cartel (that just happens to want them dead). Additionally, the trailers for the film give away far too much, showing lots of material from the last 20 minutes of the film – even the very last scene. But, to Ayer’s credit, things don’t end up quite how you might expect.

Apart from Gyllenhaal and Peña, Kendrick and Martinez do more heavy lifting than I expected (not necessarily at the end, but throughout the film), and both are very charming in their own way. America Ferrera (yes, “Ugly Betty”) and Cody Horn (of “Magic Mike”) get thankless supporting roles, but David Harbour gets the strangest role as a disgruntled beat cop who seems on hand only to counter the youthful cheeriness of the leads. Frank Grillo turns in a brief but nice performance as a commanding officer, and it couldn’t be more different from his role earlier this year in “The Grey.”

The film won’t be remembered in the same vein as “Training Day,” but it’s probably a step above Ayer’s last directorial effort, “Street Kings” (note: Ayer only wrote the former while only directing the latter). He’s definitely got the market cornered on cop films, but it would be interesting to see him move outside his comfort zone. “End Of Watch” is worth seeing as a gritty look into the lives of inner city police officers, and what the visual style does accomplish is removing the sheen and the glamour from the job and filing it down to its essence – boredom or life-threatening danger. The most startling action scene is the first, presented as a single dash cam wide shot. The film could have used more of this restraint. It might have kept the movie from devolving into literal and figurative shakiness that mutes the project’s accomplishments.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: September 21, 2012
Studio: Open Road Films
Director: David Ayer
Screenwriter: David Ayer
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Peña, Anna Kendrick, Natalie Martinez, America Ferrera, Cody Horn, David Harbour, Frank Grillo
MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence, some disturbing images, pervasive language including sexual references, and some drug use)