This was originally posted on September 8, 2012, as part of Film.com's Toronto International Film Festival coverage.
They protect, they serve, they provide us with endless hours of entertainment. They're the cops, and, if you are a dramatic actor, it is inevitable that one day you will play one.
"End of Watch" is Jake Gyllenhaal's turn and, no matter how many pushups he does or how closely he shaves his head, my disbelief can only be suspended so far. No cop has gorgeous baby blues and a shayna punim like that, at least not the ones "pushing a black and white" through the sanguine streets of South Central. It's a small but annoying problem, one of a number that prevent David Ayer's buddy drama back from any true significance. As it stands, it merely wavers between interesting and modestly engaging.
Brothers-in-arms pics are nothing new, but "End of Watch" wants you to tell you, again and again, just how much police partners rely, respect and, indeed, sacrifice for one another. The film, light on plot, is essentially a collection of ride-alongs. Gyllenhaal and his partner, the ceaselessly entertaining Michael Pena, gab in the car, cajoling one another with lighthearted ethnic ribs, and lay their emotions bare in a way that's open and honest but never fruity.
They are good scenes — well acted and, while perhaps sparing in the bon mots department, the writing evokes a verisimilitude through coarseness. (Few on the force bother to shout "Language!" these days.)
Sprinkled between the shaggy dog two-handers are moments in which we are forced to take a good hard look at the indignity of the street. Each peek into a spare room or closet is a grotesque example of man's inhumanity to man. It's horrible, and no doubt very true, but the fact that each new scene arrives on queue like a musical number and feels the need to escalate things found this reviewer, by the end, rolling his eyes. Man, you thought THOSE guys had no sanctity for human life? You ain't seen NOTHIN' yet!
A slim narrative is fastened to "End of Watch," and, unfortunately, it does it little service. For starters, Gyllenhaal is taking film classes, so he's always shooting footage for "a project." Much of what's on screen is "found footage," but not all of it. That's annoying to me. Also: this film class lasts long enough for him to meet a girl (Anna Kendrick), marry her and get her pregnant. That's annoying too, as is the fact that Kendrick's character has zero depth other than "cute," and it strikes me as very unlikely that she'd ever date a cop.
Gyllenhaal and Pena's daily encounters have them at the periphery of a major African-American vs. Mexican turf war ("There used to be chicken stands! Now there are taco stands!") Since our pair are awesome, they keep stumbling into major busts. The big finish (and the closest thing to a traditional story beat) has the South of the Border boss ordering a hit, which is filmed like a first-person shooter.
It's implied that Gyllenhaal, a former marine, may have PTSD, or anger issues, or a blatant disregard of due process... but this isn't developed. I have a hunch Ayer thinks of this gray area as a selling point, but it feels unusually subtle to me — it doesn't fit with the loud-mouth, hand-held vibe of the rest of the film.
"End of Watch," if you compare it to an average episode of, say, "Criminal Minds," is pretty good. You don't have tears in your eyes by the big, blood-soaked ending, you don't have feelings. I'm simply unsure of what this movie's point is. I'd like to say it's a genuine slice-of-life drama, but then why the forced antagonists? Why a bad guy almost as laugh-inducing as Bane? If cop stories are your thing, you may find some extra merit in this film based on an interest in the subject matter. Others may simply be anticipating the "End of Watch."