‘End of Watch’: Stop shooting

September 20, 2012

It’s a Chekhovian truism that if you introduce a gun in the first act, it had better go off before the end of the play.

That apparently didn’t register with David Ayer, who wrote and directed “End of Watch,” a competent but unremarkable new cops-on-the-streets tale starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena. Ayer, who wrote “Training Day” and directed the underrated “Street Kings,” sets us up for something he never delivers in this film.

The gimmick is a spate of tiny video cameras, deployed by Officer Brian Taylor (Gyllenhaal) to capture his life on the street. It’s meant to be a class project for a college elective he’s taking in his pre-law studies, a filmmaking class. So, aside from a handheld unit, he’s also got tiny cameras clipped to the front of his uniform and that of his partner, Mike Zavala (Michael Pena).

Taylor is constantly being warned by his colleagues and superiors about using the cameras. A fellow officer cautions him that his footage can be subpoenaed, should he get entangled in something that gets litigious.

It’s a gimmick that allows Ayer to deploy shaky handheld footage that gives the film the jittery look of a reality show like “Cops.” He even puts cameras into the hands of the Latino gang members who are on the opposite side of the law from Taylor and Zavala. Yet this key feature of “End of Watch” never actually figures in the plot beyond that.

More to the point, Ayer hasn’t made an entire film of so-called “found” footage. He repeatedly cuts away to shots that aren’t coming from anyone’s camera but his own. So – aside from that handheld look – what’s the point?

Beyond that come-on, the rest of “End of Watch” is more like a pilot for a TV series – along the lines of “Southland,” an underrated and compelling series that’s also about L.A. cops. Indeed, this film is open-ended enough to be exactly that.

“End of Watch” opens with Taylor and Zavala in pursuit of a car in a chase that seems to take them all over South Central Los Angeles and ends with them shooting the suspects when they crash and open fire on the police. They’re hero cops, back in the squad car and assigned to a tough new area.

The plot – about a Mexican cartel marking this pair for death – is actually quite slender, handled in a handful of scenes salted throughout the film. It’s there to come back to from time to time, instead of building suspense. It’s one of several elements the cops deal with in a day or a month – any of which could come back to bite them in the ass.

But this is not meant to be a thriller, so much as a look at how quickly things happen in a cop’s life that can change it forever. Action jumps off without warning; your reactions define you as a cop.

Yes, this pair of cops does seem to encounter more than its share of oversized combat moments, saving people from fires, uncovering a human trafficking ring (the catch that makes them a target of a Mexican cartel). But ultimately, this is a movie about that unspoken brotherhood of partners in a squad car; each knows that the other has his back. That’s the plot – the brotherhood of the badge, and the sacrifices it entails.

I like Gyllenhaal as an actor, but he doesn’t do brash particularly well, as he’s required to do here. Still, he and Pena have a familiarity and a give-and-take that works both ways, because Pena is a deeper actor than ever.

There’s some gruesome action in “End of Watch” and a lot of gun violence. It is never less than exciting, even if it is only infrequently involving.

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