End of Watch, as I must confess out front, is wildly disproportionate to its dramatic sins, which certainly exist but are, as such things go, not crushing, and more than compensated for by its significant merits of characterisation. What we have here is a pretty basic thing: an off-the-shelf buddy cop movie done up as a ride-along, giving us a peek into the lives of two LAPD police officers, Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña), over the course of about four months in 2011. There is, apparently, no real narrative spine to those four months, nor the almost two hours it takes to dramatise them, except that when it's all over you can look back over the whole thing with a good sense of "ah, so that's what was going on", and it's rather nimble of writer-director David Ayer to hide a story in plain sight, by burying it underneath what look for all the world like disconnected moments in the day-to-day life of two young men fighting crime in South Central L.A. This is not much of a comfort during those almost two hours, when it seems awfully like End of Watch is just rambling around, trusting that we're more than content to do nothing but sit around, hanging out with these guys, gasping at their not-infrequent brushes with gunfire.
Truth be told, it's not all that hard to be content with exactly that: the heart and soul is not Ayer's boots-on-the-ground tribute to the LAPD - a subject that comes up with deadening frequency in his filmography - but the sparkling interplay between Gyllenhaal and Peña, whose individual performances are fine without being particularly extraordinary (although Gyllenhaal hasn't been this good in a whole lot of years; Peña is, generally speaking, more consistent and thus less revelatory), but whose combined performance of the Taylor/Zavala partnership, taken as an individual thing and not the confluence of two individual people, is one of the best characters I've seen in a movie in months. A more precise, lived-in depiction of the friendship between two hyper-male bros you'd be hard to come by; and even if that description makes it sound kind of awful, like it would sound to me (I have an extremely low tolerance for bro-ish behavior, myself), the effect is so organic and comfortable that the sheer humanity of the characters together more than overcomes anything unappealing in who the characters are.
And so, against the odds, End of Watch does manage to work awfully well as the hang-out movie that its formless, incident-light plot structure would seem to insist on; a stroke of luck for all concerned, given that hang-out movies are such a tricky proposition to start (the kind of actors who tend to gravitate towards them are frequently not prone to the kind of characterisations that we'd necessarily want to hang out with for very long), and when added to the generic requirements of a cop thriller, would seem to be positively suicidal; and yet Ayer's incredibly casual dialogue, saturated with the bland profanity of people who aren't monitoring what they're saying and thus seem to be at the most relaxed and natural, coupled with those impeccable central performances, actually manages to make the prospect of spending God knows how much time in a cramped squad car with our cops seem rather fine altogether.
Indeed, the movie nails this central mission so precisely, that the more it drifts away from it, the less interesting it becomes, not so much in its escalating drug war plot, as in the unnecessary lard provided by the cops' significant others: Zavala's pregnant wife Gabby (Natalie Martinez), and Taylor's new flame Janet (Anna Kendrick), roles not remotely large enough to give the actresses anything worth doing (I cannot start to conceive what possible motivation Kendrick had for taking this part), but too large to be readily ignored. The point of it, presumably, is that End of Watch is something of a love letter to the police, and the introduction of the ladyfolk in these men's lives is showing us exactly what it is they fight for, who they are as men when they're not in uniform; except that listening to Gyllenhaal and Peña rag on each other's love lives gets the some point across in a much more concise and interesting way, and unlike the other momentum-sapping visits with various tertiary characters, such as the other cops that Taylor and Zavala cross paths with here and there (America Ferrara among them, another actress who strikes me as much too prominent for the dinky nothing role she's saddled with), the material with Gabby and Janet moves too far outside of the film's "real" métier, and given how deeply uninteresting they are on any dramatic level, there's nothing to distract us from just how much they belong in a different sort of cop movie.
All of that, though, is largely minor; there's not that much of Gabby and/or Janet, or even the tertiary cops; flaws though they be, End of Watch would still be an easy pass as a totally functional, if not especially revelatory genre picture. What really just pisses me right off, is the way the thing was shot, and particularly the go-nowhere narrative kink it takes to justify it: see, Taylor is taking a film class elective, so he's decided to film all of his daily work and make something of a documentary about the lives of cops. Found-footage cop movie! you say to this, perhaps in excitement, though I hope it's more in a mounting sense of dread. And the answer is, no, it is not a found-footage cop movie, but rather one in which first-person camera footage, of which there is a considerable amount, is cut in arbitrarily and unsuccessful with third-person footage that is not, as far as we can tell, supposed to originate from any in-universe camera. Except you'd never know to look at it, since Ayer and cinematography Roman Vasyanov shoot the whole entire movie in the same outrageously shaky faux-documentary style of the hectic first-person footage, and more gallingly, with the same harsh digital edge.
There is, that I can tell, absolutely no reason to do this: it blurs the distinction between character POV and objective camera in a way that certainly doesn't service the narrative in any meaningful way, and one gets the horrible suspicion that the whole matter of Taylor's uncharacteristically obsessive cinematic bent was introduced just to motivate the use of cheap digital cameras throughout the entire feature. Not since Act of Valor earlier this year has a movie reveled so enthusiastically in looking so fucking ugly, to so little purpose - I can't even bring myself to say that I disagree with Ayer's aesthetic, because as far as I can make out, it's not an aesthetic. I see no evidence of conscious choices being made; it's more like pointing the camera at shitting and pressing "record", and to hell with lighting or framing or blocking, which in turn means to hell with editing, and that means that whenever the film switches over to action and gunplay, which happens relatively often, it becomes totally impossible (for me, at least) to follow anything of what's going on in more than a general, "our guys are winning/losing" sense, and sometimes not even that.
The fact that End of Watch opened on the same day that The Master had its wide expansion feels like the absolute worst kind of passing of the torch: Paul Thomas Anderson's project, pridefully filmed in the extinct 65mm format, rubbing elbows with a movie that looks like somebody uploaded YouTube videos right to the theater, fills me with nothing less than an instinctual sense of revulsion. Look, we all know that digital cinema won, celluloid lost; we do not, however, need to be happy about it. And if things like End of Watch can be enthusiastically praised by most of the admittedly smallish, self-selecting audience that sees it, in despite of looking like twelve kinds of ass, it's easy to be even less happy. I have no intention of turning a reasonably sturdy cop movie undone by terrible visuals into the basis for some kind of Death of Cinema jeremiad, but Christ, if this is what the future is going to look like, it might be time to start rehearsing my grouchy old man routine.