dir: David Ayer
It sounds like something you’ve seen a million times before, but it actually ends up being much stronger than that. A movie about two cops? Get out of here, it’ll never work…
The director, David Ayer, has been responsible for a lot of cop-related flicks, most notoriously Training Day (as the screenwriter), a film I still loathe to this day, but he clearly has an affinity for two things: cops and South Central LA. As he grew up there, it’s impossible to see it as anything other than a deep affection for the place. In some ways he’s demystifying some of the mystique surrounding the place, but in a lot of other ways, he’s probably perpetuating most of the clichés about the place that give it such a negative rep.
That doesn’t concern me, I’m not here to judge, just to condemn or transcend. In truth, you probably shouldn’t see his many films about cops and South Central as a form of document, covering as they do the transitions occurring over time in that one area, and in policing, as well, but I’m happy to, because how else am I going to know? The only other source of information I have about South Central comes from rappers, and they’re not known for their meticulous adherence to accuracy.
One of the strongest aspects of this flick versus everything else Ayer’s ever done is that, for once, it’s not about a bunch of sadistic, corrupt cops dealing with cops that are even more sadistic and corrupt than themselves. The intention here is just to depict two decent cops on the beat, and the shittiness they have to deal with on an almost daily basis.
The film opens with a car chase, and Jake Gyllenhaal in voiceover giving us the spiel about how cops are a band of brothers, one-for-all Musketeers and the Thin Blue Line and every other cliché out there about cops, and then lives up to it by showing how this really works out for them.
Taylor (Gyllenhaal) and Zavala (Michael Peña) are officers and partners, they drive around in their squad car, and they patrol the mean streets. They are not corrupt. They aren’t excessively brutal or brutish to the many scumbags they have to deal with, and they actually try to make a difference out there.
Most of their fellow cops are similarly young and arrogant, but they seem to have taken mandatory sensitivity training to heart, and strive every day to not repeat the behaviour or mentality of your Rodney King beatings and your Ramparts scandals. The best example of this is when a number of the beat cops go to a party where there’s been a noise complaint, and instead of letting rip with their tasers and batons, or outright shooting these MS-13 gangbangers, they try to respectfully impose their authority and gently ask them to put their joints out in order to “show some respect.”
How times have changed. The gender distribution is also almost 50/50, both in the gang’s membership and in the ranks of the cops. The officer who gets closest to breaking out and attacking one of the gang members is female (America Ferrera), and she’s doing it because she’s taunted by memories of smoking dope with them in the past before she became a cop. Also there was a weird lesbian-sexual implication that I’m not sure I totally got or wanted to get, pendeja.
This is one of the reasons why it was so interesting to watch, at least for me. I remember nearly hundreds of cop flicks, and seeing the contemporary versions, incorporating as they do the contemporary sheen of respectability that they never bothered with in the past, it certainly shows how the times are (cinematically) changing. Now, as in finally, they’re bothering to think that they need to win the PR war by presenting a less brutish and more sensitive front for the masses.
From the looks of it, even within the context of the film, it’s not really going to work. The people who might notice or respond to their ‘new’ approach aren’t the ones they have to wonder about. The ones who hate them, the scum who fantasise about killing cops aren’t going to be dissuaded by any of this stuff. At least the grannies won’t be as offended by their cocky strides and musky odours.
Taylor and Zavala are fortunate in that they have each other, and, to use that particularly useless phrase, they have each other’s backs. Of course if they had each other’s fronts as well, maybe it would be safer, since there’s a lot of good stuff in the front. They’re pretty gung-ho, but not, perhaps, adrenalin junkies per se. Even though in the first few moments of the film we see them shooting some suspects, it’s only because the assailants are shooting at them first.
This makes a difference, like I said earlier, as to why it stands above the other flicks where David Ayers has been involved. The ‘other’ ones I’m talking about, as a rule, have scenes where the cop protagonists kill unarmed crims out of a sense of fascist righteousness. Often it comes early in the film, and it’s meant to reinforce the idea that though the cop is corrupt, and pretty much a murderer, the victims had it coming, and our protagonist is a total righteous badass.
Here, after a massive crim attacks and maims two fellow cops, Taylor gets the drop on him but holds his shotgun on him until his partner can cuff him. When his sergeant later mocks him for not killing the guy outright, Taylor responds that he’s seen enough death already.
Look, that may seem like a tiny distinction to you, or the rest of the world, but it made a hell of a big difference to me. Taylor’s also a former Marine vet, but doesn’t display the same kind of post traumatic stress lunacy that usually makes all these people psychopathic killers if you believe the multitude of movies these characters populate.
It makes a difference because we spend most of the flick with Taylor and Zavala in their squad car as they basically talk a lot of shit. It’s not that the ‘shit’ they talk is particularly revealing or interesting, but we’re meant to be responding to these chaps as actual people as well as cops, and the easy rapport they display goes along way towards selling that. In the vast majority of other cops flicks the personal details are inserted as an afterthought, elements chosen from an identikit or character Legos that can be added or withdrawn as needed.
That’s not to say that there are especial depths to the characterisations here, but the fact that they bother to spend enough time doing that rather than emphasising any actual plot works in terms of getting us to care about what happens to them.
The actual calls they respond to are pretty depressing and harrowing. They’re just going about their jobs in a dedicated fashion, but the problem is the world in which they’re trying to operate is pretty sickening. We are meant to marvel at their casual heroism, where they do whatever they can to help or save people without hesitating, but even more I admired them for not shooting more of these awful, awful people in South Central LA in the face.
End of Watch is filmed in a fairly entertaining and sometimes really fucking annoying manner. The conceit is that Taylor is filming footage of himself and his fellow cops for some project in the pursuit of a degree, but it’s used as an excuse to use a lot, a whole hell of a lot of shaky cam. Also, during a fairly harrowing climactic sequence, for some reason the footage often shifts perspective so that it’s almost like a first person shooter, which really made no sense to me. I didn’t ask other people in the theatre what they thought about it (out of a fear of getting shot), but at no stage did this strange and over-used style of footage convince me that I was playing a computer game, nor did I want to imagine that what I was seeing was like a computer game.
It was the last thing I would want to think about, and it strikes me as a poor choice stylistically, at least at that crucial moment of the film. The rest of the time, when it’s not focussing on character moments about Taylor’s and Zavala’s respective families, the footage is deliberately trying to mimic the kinds of ‘real’ footage we associate with various tv programs that are made from actual police footage. Yes, it’s impossible to watch this flick without thinking about the ‘reality’ program Cops, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, in fact it kind of worked for me.
And if you can hear that title without the theme’s chorus popping into your head, then you’re a helluva stronger person than I, which isn’t saying much.
Taylor and Zalava’s path through this world brings them into conflict with the Worst not because they’re corrupt, but because they’re honest and dedicated, and that makes enough of an appreciable change for me to recommend the flick. There’s enough here in End of Watch that managed to make it an engaging, sometimes enthralling, and sometimes downright silly experience without sugarcoating the horrible people these brave shmucks face every other day, that made it worth my while, definitely.
8 times I still wonder why most of the bullies I went to school with ended up in the police force out of 10
“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.” – what seems to be the problem, officer? – End of Watch