"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
The protagonists of "End of Watch" are two beat police stuck cruising one of the worst districts of south Los Angeles. Every day seems to bring some crazy run-in or other — fisticuffs with an old crank, houses burning, stabbings, beatings — which we know because one of the cops, Brian (Jake Gyllenhaal), is recording it all for a class. This gives him and his partner, Mike (Michael Pena), chances to deliver exposition and commentary straight to Brian's ubiquitous cameras, like an episode of "Cops" shot by the cops.
As gimmicky as this setup sounds, "End of Watch" winds up being one of the most engrossing police dramas in recent memory. Once writer/director David Ayer (who also wrote "Training Day" and "The Fast and the Furious") commits to scrapbooking an entire feature out of found footage, he has still has to decide how to make a complex story look and sound better than YouTube-grade DIY video; coherent edits alone call for more angles. The filmmakers punt, switching routinely to other cameras that no character could possibly hold, while maintaining the same cinema verite style. Such inconsistency has torpedoed lesser films. Instead, "End of Watch" rides the best aspects of its style (the veracity, the immediacy, the documentary texture) to an effect that's as hilarious as it is moving.
As indulgent as the viewpoint-tinkering feels, "End of Watch" is meticulously paced with anxiety that climbs and plateaus as rhythmically as a staircase. The scenes of Gyllenhaal and Pena riding in the car, laughing and carrying on, are pure catharsis. The two have such an easy, brotherly chemistry that at times "End of Watch" plays like a two-man romantic comedy. But in unlucky (and unlikely) fashion, they keep riding across characters and grisly scenes that suggest a Mexican drug cartel is doing very bad things on their beat. Our heroes are overmatched, plainly; federal agents tell them as much, and there are enough heart-to-hearts between the two that we cannot figure on them both getting to the end credits in the best of shape. Still, both have everything to live for. Brian's falling for a girl he can actually have conversations with (the WASPeriffic Anna Kendrick) while Mike's wife since forever (the enchanting Natalie Martinez) is big-time pregnant. It's just hard being a young family man on a shift where the bad guys carry gold-plated machine guns.
Whatever the recipe at work here — two solid leading men, a script packed with just enough bravado, locker room talk done right, a palmful of sugar to sweeten the storyline — "End of Watch" far outstrips most of the outright consumer fraud that usually passes for cinemaplex fare. Maybe it's not coincidence that it was released on the last weekend of the calendar summer; every year when the kids get back to the homework quagmire the average wide release gets a little smarter, a little more dangerous. "End of Watch" doesn't take risks so much as nail the landing. Its storyline, so simple on paper, becomes enthralling as we warm to Gyllenhaal and Pena. They feel like real people. As oversimplified as that sounds, it's utterly essential to almost any film, especially one ostensibly framed as an extended home movie. Drop characters like that into a high-stakes world, give them some goals to accomplish, stir some pathos with great secondary family characters and before you know it, your audience cares deeply, suddenly, what happens next, watching rapt until the end.