A long hard look at the brotherhood and bravery of men on the right side of the law, David Ayer’s End Of Watch takes on the mean streets of LA.
Blood Brothers by Alexa Dalby
End Of Watch begins with a breathless, edge-of-the-seat police car chase through the meanest of Los Angeles backstreets, shot dizzyingly with a buttoncam pinned to the uniform of one of the officers. His voiceover, as the police car cruises before the chase kicks off, is reminscent of Judge Dredd’s omnipotent implacability: “We stand watch together, a thin blue line, protecting the prey from the predators. The good from the bad. We are the police.” Officer Brian Taylor (an intense, shaven-headed Jake Gyllenhaal, managing to meld sensitive yet hard), is disobeying authority by making a video diary for his pre-law studies. This tensest-ever opening chase ends abruptly as the car crashes in a side alley and Brian and his partner, Latino Mike Zavala (chirpy, homespun Michael Peña), matter-of-factly gun down all the young guys inside as they flee. We never find out what they had done or who they were. It’s a brutal opening scene, which also sets up expectations about stereotypes to be subverted later.
End Of Watch’s schtick is the jumpy, nervy, disorientating mixture edited together of Brian’s footage, and mobile phone footage such as that shot by gang members as they drive to drive-by shootings of rival gangs of blacks and Latinos, or plan ambushes and other murders. It’s linked by conventional narrative footage, which becomes more dominant as the film progresses, shot by the director David Ayer (director of Harsh Times, also set in South Central Los Angeles, and, as well as End of Watch, the screenwriter of Training Day, which won Denzel Washington an Oscar). Brian and Mike’s South Central mean streets are populated by violent gangs, crackheads, people traffickers – human detritus – against whom the cops are shown as tough, uncompromising, dispensing harsh ‘justice’ requiring physical strength and stamina. But they are also shown at the other end of the spectrum as kind and, at times, heroic. They risk their lives to go back a second time into a burning house to rescue babies, for which they win a bravery award, and are part-social workers when they discover a crackhead’s ‘missing’ toddlers in a cupboard in her house, bound and with their mouths duct-taped to keep them quiet.
The crucial difference between End Of Watch and a straight action movie – apart from the glorious almost-abstract shots of evening skylines which punctuate it – is the conversations Brian and Mike have as they cruise the streets day after day, night after night, in their cop car looking for trouble. Part banter and part confessional, these outwardly macho men talk to each other about their relationships, give each other advice, in a most ‘unmale’ way. They can josh comfortably, satirising the cultural peculiarities of each other’s ethnicity: white Americans’ love of weirdly flavoured coffee, Mexicans’ neverending quinceañeras. Their ability to mock the cultural divide amicably contrasts sharply with the ethnic tensions of the gangland ghetto.
Despite the very different social backgrounds of the two men, these snatches which intersperse their response to their radio calls to action, reveal a genuine rapport and affection, and the strength of the brotherly bond between them that makes them willing to die for each other. Episodically, over several months, conveyed by dates on the video footage, they discuss wives and girlfriends and their attitudes to the dangers of the job, Brian’s deepening relationship with the woman, an academic, he eventually marries, the baby Mike’s wife is expecting… They have emotions, they’re human! Extending the use of supposed verité footage, Brian’s fiancée films him with his own phone as he sleeps, unknown to him revealing her love. When they marry, their first dance together turns into a surreally stunning dance routine, to the amazement of their guests, taking the film into totally different territory in an extended wedding reception sequence.
But two routine incidents change the film’s direction. They discover a house-turned-jail full of trafficked immigrants and are warned it will “come back to bite them”. Undeterred, answering a routine call to check on an old lady, in stark contrast they accidentally uncover the massive extent of the drug dealings of the same Mexican cartel. The film reverts to grainy mobile phone footage as, in Mexico, the psychopathic drug baron orders the local gangs to execute them. From then on, Brian and Mike are dead men walking, though they are oblivious. The tension builds as the gang members video themselves – in a rather unlikely way – psyching up for the ambush they plan, and which they dare not allow to fail for fear of their own lives.
After a decoy call for help to an apartment in a dilapidated block, the two cops realise they are trapped, alone and surrounded by gang members armed with sub-machine guns. Amid a hail of bullets they eventually make a run for it outside, but they’re outnumbered and outgunned. Brian falls first, and as Mike mourns over his body, he drops his guard and he too is surrounded and shot, followed by callous, mocking gang laughter. Suddenly, police reinforcements appear at the end of the alley and gun down anyone still left standing. The body count is huge. The shock of the deaths of both central characters is palpable. Cut to an immensely long and ceremonial procession of funeral cars and a church filled with uniformed officers, the two men’s grieving wives and a Scottish musical lament. [Warning – major spoiler] In an almost incredible coup de théâtre, Brian, bandaged but unbowed, severely wounded but somehow miraculously alive, struggles his way painfully to the front to give Mike’s eulogy: “He was my brother.” To turn the emotional screw even tighter, a tailpiece flashes back to them together earlier on the day of the shooting, talking, laughing, Mike innocently involved in everyday family stuff.
End of Watch is viscerally exciting, innovative, hugely violent but also hugely sentimental. It is, within its own remit, an original and probably important film. But it could, in the end, have been more lastingly challenging if it had not succumbed to the meme of “the black guy (or, in this case, the Latino) always dies first”. Perhaps its version of ‘reality’, as implied by the ‘raw’ footage could more powerfully have shown the real consquences of policing an unpredictable, ultra-violent society with the cop-Armageddon it tricked us to believe in, rather than a cop-out.
End Of Watch is released on 23rd November 2012 in the UK