End of Watch is pure frat-boy fantasy, the video game to Southland’s great American novel. Sure, Ann Biderman’s superb TNT television program has the luxury of time: Throughout multiple seasons, it’s explored life on the gritty streets of Los Angeles, overlapping stirring, socially relevant vignettes populated by engaging archetypes in order to zero in on the pain of random violence, erosive bureaucracy, and moral dilemmas, all of which resonate profoundly. Conversely, David Ayer’s fidgety pomo genre exercise, essentially a found-footage cop film, never sits still long enough to ponder anything deeper than surface chaos. Here, the immediacy of the kinetic digital image is king, logic and procedure be damned.
The film’s shaky aesthetic, captured through both motivated (lapel cam, home video) and unmotivated sources, matches the blunt-force attitude of the film’s two protagonists: Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña), young hot-shot police officers who banter, shoot, and joke their way through dangerous shifts patrolling South Central. Both see the slums as a perfect setting for their own violent fairy tale, an old-school western where they can freely label themselves “ghetto gunslingers” without reproach. The opening chase scene, filmed from the dashboard of their car, is indicative of their wild-man antics. In hot pursuit of a black Monte Carlo, they spin their assailant’s vehicle, then gun down the pair of armed gangbangers inside when fired upon. Their mid-moment actions are sound, but the gung-ho way in which they seamlessly throw down is disturbing, especially when the cops high-five each other post-shootout.
Ayer, primarily known for scripting nasty L.A. sagas such as Training Day and Dark Blue, has proven himself a capable director of the hardboiled character study. Even if his Street Kings failed to live up to the incendiary promise of his debut, the Christian Bale-starrer Harsh Times, both films crackled with a palpable sense of danger. End of Watch lacks this unpredictability. The film exists in a Call of Duty-style universe where every corner threatens violence. Maybe that’s the point, but this fantastical perspective is limited and overtly aggressive, troubling to say the least. We see glimpses of Brian and Mike’s personal lives (the former begins dating a grad student, played by Anna Kendrick, basically because she can carry a conversation, while the latter is happily married to his pregnant high school sweetheart), but these less visceral moments always play second fiddle to the shock and awe of the streets.
When Brian and Mike begin recklessly following leads involving a brutal Mexican cartel, End of Watch momentarily flirts with a structured plot. Their haphazard police work and complete disavowal for the rule book carelessly justifies too many random plot threads, allowing Ayer to show one social atrocity after another, not to mention get his two trigger-happy cowboys involved in a gripping close-contact shootout with a group of local thugs sanctioned by the omniscient cartel. While the film’s dynamic climax works as a stand-alone set piece, its incendiary qualities are once again trampled by Ayer’s affection for stilted melodrama and convention. Gyllenhaal and Peña’s chemistry makes the proceedings watchable and occasionally funny, but their bromance often descends into self-reflective musings about heroism and loyalty. Like most of End of Watch, these truncated bits of humanism are short-sighted and incredibly hollow, filler to intersect first-person actions scenes populated by grown children who have but one question on the mind: When can I shoot again?