Once upon a time, there was a movie called “The Blair Witch Project”(1999), and its unexpected success generated a sub-genre so-called “found footage”. While this low-budget genre has been continued through other successful cases like “Paranormal Activity”(2007), there also have been interesting attempts to mix this genre with other genres, and one of the best examples was “The Chronicle”(2012), an impressively creative juxtaposition between found footage and superhero story which has grown on me since I watched early in this year.
In case of David Ayer’s gritty film “End of Watch”, which arrives late in this year in South Korea, the movie is an interesting mix between police drama and found footage. The movie does not wholly depend on the cameras shown in the movie, but its tone is coherent on the whole, and it deftly moves between two genres to provide the visceral depiction of the perils its two main characters and their colleagues face every day.
The movie revolves around two young LAPD officers Brian Taylor(Jack Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala(Michael Peña). Their strong partnership/friendship feels palpable right from the scene when Taylor tests his digital video camera at the locker room in their police station. According to Taylor, he is attending a film class when he is off duty, and he wants to make a documentary based on their daily work. Besides his digital camera, Taylor also has a pair of tiny cameras which can be easily attached to their shirts, so they do not always have to be behind the camera during their duty.
Because their job is patrolling around a notoriously dangerous district in South Central LA, there are always plenty of gritty and disturbing materials to be recorded by Taylor or Zavala during their duty. In one house, they find the children locked and bound in the closet by their mother’s addict boyfriend. When they go into a house which seems to belong to some old lady, they encounter something far more horrible than stinking smell.
And there are dangerous criminals who have no fear about attacking them and their fellow police officers on the streets. Their district becomes more violent recently because a powerful drug cartel in Mexico starts to spread its influence around the neighbourhood as it ruthlessly corners an Afro-American gang organization which originally occupied the area, and Taylor and Zavala gets in a serious trouble not long after they unknowingly meddle with the cartel’s major business operations while doing their duty as usual.
Their activities in the movie are frequently shown through several video recording devices including Taylor’s private cameras. Sometimes this approach does not work effectively due to its inherent limits such as shaky camera movement, but it works well to enhance the hyper-reality in the film in most cases although you have some doubts about the plausibility of several scenes involved with gangs(I understand some gangs tend to show themselves off, but, seriously, do they always have camera around them?), and the movie wisely does not limit itself to the boundaries of found footage whenever it is required to get out of the boundaries for being more active and intense.
The director/writer David Ayer has written or directed several notable gritty urban dramas such as “Training Day”(2001), which was fueled by Denzel Washington’s striking Oscar-winning performance, and “Harsh Times”(2005), which had one of the memorably intense performances by Christian Bale. “End of Watch” is filled with vivid atmosphere and authentic details thanks to his experiences with South Central LA during his adolescent years, and the result is both interesting and gripping to watch. As we watch Taylor and Zabala closely, we come to sense the danger and exhaustion in their work, and I was amused by a small detail about how they keep themselves awake during their night patrol.
There are many guns and subsequent shootings throughout the movie, but its drama firmly holds its ground as it is ably supported by two strong performances. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña went through extensive preparation for their characters, and their performances are as real as the background surrounding them. While Gyllenhaal shows an unexpected tough side, Peña matches him well as his equally tough partner, and they are the main engine palpitating behind the movie. They are young, and they are sometimes a little reckless, but Taylor and Zabala are mostly dutiful officers who rarely forget what should be done in their several perilous situations in the film. When there are kids in a burning house and the firemen seem to be late, they immediately go inside the house to rescue them with no hesitation because it is their duty to protect and serve.
The supporting characters are more and less than functional in the story, but the movie has good actors to provide some life to their respective characters. Anna Kendrick and Natalie Martinez are respectively good as Taylor’s girlfriend and Zabala’s pregnant wife; when they meet each other for the first time, they quickly get close to each other through their men. David Harbour, America Ferrera, and Frank Grillo are adequate as the other police officers in the police station, and Grillo, who plays Taylor and Zabala’s direct boss, has a small nice moment when his character talks about one personal memory from his long career.
“End of Watch” is a solid police drama propelled by compelling drama, electrifying performances, and high-octane actions. Compared to its realistic depiction in the first two parts, the third act in which the main characters find themselves targeted by the drug cartel looks a little too artificial, but the movie does not lose its sense of reality at all even when it is amid lots of bullets showering upon its characters. Police dramas about two partners, or ‘cop buddy movies’, are dime a dozen, but “End of Watch” has a strong emotional core beneath its conventional elements, and it is definitely worthwhile to watch.