Every once in a while, Hollywood issues a corrective to its standard cynicism about Americans whose jobs require the use of force or the wielding of authority. The Hurt Locker performed that service for servicemen; it said that soldiers who defused bombs in Baghdad were risking their lives to save those of Iraqis. Ben Affleck’s Argo, a hit at the Toronto Film Festival, finds heroism and actual Intelligence in a CIA officer. Now, in End of Watch, writer-director David Ayer proposes that the policeman on the South Los Angeles detail are truly L.A.’s finest — seraphic souls who guard the City of Angels. Next thing you know, somebody will make a movie about an honest politician. (Oops. Coming right up: Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.)
Over the last dozen years, Ayer has spent as much time with L.A. cops as Peter Jackson has with Hobbits. Ayer’s scripts for Training Day and Dark Blue ripped the medals off the puffed-up chests of venal policemen. S.W.A.T., which he wrote, and Street Kings, which he directed from a James Ellroy story, provided a mix of good cops and bad ones to cheer or hiss. (Another Ayer film, Harsh Times, focused on the felonious civilians of South Central.) He must have thought that the men and women who court death as regularly as white-collar workers check their Facebook pages deserved a portrait that was more Norman Rockwell, less Francis Bacon. So, in tribute or retribution, he made End of Watch, the alternately engrossing and annoying police procedural that Ayer dedicates to “all those who fight evil so that we may not know it.”
We spend three months in a patrol car with Officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña). ”I am Fate with a badge and a gun,” Brian declares in the opening voiceover, sounding like the graduate student he is in his scant spare time. With nerve to match his ambition, Brian will walk fearlessly into any strange house — in this movie, every abode is deadly or haunted — and, when he unearths a cache of drugs or money, never considers taking some to finance his education. His partner and best friend, Mike, is as expertly comic at imitating Anglo voices as Brian is at speaking Spanglish during their police-car banter, but a homebody who married his high school sweetheart Gabby (Natalie Martinez). Brian, with a history of three-night stands, may have finally found Ms. Right in the perky Janet (Anna Kendrick). All four are the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human beings you’ve ever known in your life.
(READ: Corliss’s review of David Ayer’s Street Kings)
Some movies about L.A. cops, like last year’s Rampart (also from an Ellroy story), float the notion that an officer needs to be crazy or corrupt to survive and thrive in a hellish job. End of Watch argues that the boys in blue can have hearts of gold. No question that Brian and Mike are as noble as the local malefactors are monstrous. Need clues to how egregious the movie’s villains are? They’re named Demon (Richard Cabral), Wicked (Diamonique) and Big Evil (Maurice Compte). At rest, they lounge in snarling decadence; when agitated they break the all-time record for use of the f-word. Underlings of a Mexican drug cartel, they risk exposure when our heroes find a stash of coke and some elaborate hardware. “Look,” Mike says, holding a silver-encrusted rifle, “Liberace’s AK[-47].” That’s not a great collar; it’s an intimation of mortality. As a federal agent warns the cops, they’ve pulled the tail of a snake that will come back to bite them.
(READ: Corliss’s review of Rampart)
The ethical point of view has its inspirational and novelty value, but the aesthetic POV — the pretense that most of what we see is “found footage” — borders on the ludicrous. Brian justifies his incessant carrying of a camera by saying he’s doing a project for grad school. Viewers at first may sigh and indulge this overused strategy with a conditional OK. But Ayer and cinematographer Roman Vasyanov (in his first feature made outside his native Russia) go nuts with the camerabatics, shattering the visual lexicon of film and replacing it with anarchy. A simple car conversation is shot from six different angles, including an upward view of crotches. Apparently Brian has also preset cameras in the houses they enter, or the residents wanted surveillance videos from floorboard level. And who’s got an iPhone out during the big gunplay scenes? (Someone is shooting with the wrong instrument.) In a no-budget horror franchise like the Paranormal Activity films, found footage can serve the purpose of a teasing minimalism while it applies an electric shock to the audience. But in a medium-budget cop drama like End of Watch, the tactic fatally substitutes photo realism for fauxto realism.
(READ: Corliss on the Paranormal Activity films)
It’s a wonder the actors do good work here, since in the more pensive scenes Ayer shoots them in microcosmic closeup; by the end of the film you will know Gyllenhaal’s face — the mole above his lip, every freckle and wen — better than your own mirrored image. Yet he and Peña, and Kendrick and Martinez, not only get to show off their perfect teeth, they manage to burrow into their characters, to find behavioral nuances under the haloes. Granted, any decision a good man makes has greater impact when his life could end with the turn of a doorknob. But the performances here are so sharp that viewers may wish End of Watch has been shot by someone who knew how to find the right point of view for a scene and leave it there — say, the anonymous auteur who shot Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” speech with an utterly stationary camera. That deadpan exposé, not End of Watch, is the most enthralling movie of the week.
(READ: James Poniewozik on A Waiter’s-Eye View of Mitt Romney)