End of Watch focuses on four months in the lives of LAPD Officers Taylor and Zavala played by Jake Gyllanhaal and Michael Peña. The dynamic is classic Hollywood: the cops are good, heroes, honourable, and the bad guys are not. It’s a white hat/black hat demarcation without the hats. It is Gyllenhaal’s clean-cut shaven military head that symbolises good in this instance, indeed one of the trailer’s tag-lines is ‘They Were the City’s Top Guns’. Gyllanhaal’s character looks and acts like a soldier and it’s clear we are meant to read him this way, the analogy runs throughout the film, their lieutenant speaks of ‘cops as soldiers’ and the ‘battle’ scenes are certainly bloody.
Much has been made of the documentary style filming, a technique brought to our attention most memorably in The Blair Witch Project (1999), but in End of Watch the point of view is inconsistent and often seems arbitrary. However, as a comment on the genre it has some value. The cops are filming themselves and the villains, and the rival gangs are filming themselves too. All sides are making and starring in their own movies, celebrating their own spectacle. Like Travis Bickle in the mirror, it’s all about looking. This seems to be the most striking premise of the film. Of course movies imitate other movies and the jury is still out on whether life imitates movies; memorable villains like Omar Little from The Wire certainly have plenty of imitators on screen and off. That’s not to say that The Wire or any other show or film makes villains, they are there already, but who knows to what extent the movies dress our villains or contribute to the language our villains use, ‘true dat’?
On the subject of The Wire, the influence of the popular TV series is plain to see in End of Watch; the film opens with a voiceover that includes the strange grammar, so memorable in the show ‘I am a police’. This is a film that reminds you of other films and shows, but it takes the best characters and the best scenes and it works because of it. One of the most memorable films to depict South Central is Boyz n the Hood (1991), and it seems likely that End of Watch is informed by this classic. One of the black gang members bemoans the time that they owned the streets that now seem destined to be overtaken by Hispanic gangs. Inside a drug house, we see a couch wrapped in plastic – a signifier of a lifestyle that we saw over twenty years ago in John Singleton’s film. In fact, nothing much has changed, as the camera moves through the streets and alleyways of South Central we see the same deprived landscape we saw in Singleton’s film.
The focus is on the cops; the members of the cartel are made ridiculous, with their gilt studded jackets and jewel encrusted guns, including a gold-plated AK47 – ‘Liberace’s AK’. The foot soldiers for the cartel are more rounded. The stand-out character is the ironically named La La, played by Yakira Garcia; the film’s representation of the female gang member is memorable, La La is an extraordinary construct – reminiscent of Snoop from The Wire, and every bit as ruthless – La La is hard, vicious but her insecurity is manifest ‘I’ll buy you something, what do you want?’ she asks a woman she is trying to seduce, she pulls out a wad of cash.
It’s hard to suspend disbelief though – is it possible that it could really be that bad? The clips shown are often dated weeks apart, but put together they depict a catalogue of horrific scenes and it seems every call ends in ultra violence: human trafficking, dismembered bodies, car chases, brutality, child abuse and numerous bullets aimed at the LAPD.
End of Watch is a buddy movie, the formula is intact: the men are ‘brothers’, they would lay down their lives and so on. But for all that, the scenes showing the interaction between the two main characters, and those with their wives are satisfying, and the portrayal of Hispanic gangs is tempered by the wholesome scenes with Officer Zavala’s extended Mexican family. There’s nothing new here, but the cast is strong and in a genre known for its cliché the dialogue is funny and engaging.