Today I was lucky enough to see End of Watch a good five weeks ahead of its UK release on 23 November – thanks to the London Film Festival. Not only that, it also gave me the opportunity to catch up with friends and movie blogging chums. This is what a festival should be all about: excellent (one hopes) movies and friends to share them with and mull them over with a drink. The day would have been wonderful even if End of Watch had disappointed. How brilliant, then, that the film exceeded all my rather limited expectations.
My Jake Gyllenhaal fan-status is hardly a secret (a handy juncture at which to insert a Wet Dark and Wild link) but neither is my unease with films that include what I consider excessive amounts of violence or swearing. I am English, after all. When I heard that Jake was to appear in David Training Day Ayer’s latest gritty LA cop drama I did not hide my fears. Apart from horror, which I can’t cope with in any shape or form – at least while staying conscious, American police dramas are right up there among movies that I would never bother with or possibly even be aware of. But having written about End of Watch since its conception, I had to see it, fully aware that I could hate it. And if I did, I would say so in no uncertain terms.
To compound matters, End of Watch also incorporates another irritation – handheld cameras. The Found Footage genre is one I needed no more of after the excellent Troll Hunter.
What I got with End of Watch was a peculiar mix of what I was expecting but presented in an astonishingly original fashion. The cameras worn by Police Officers Brian Taylor (Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena) supported the story, making no attempt to steal it. The story itself, of two young LA cops trying to keep the peace in a neighbourhood set on tearing itself apart, is told through the affectionate banter between Taylor and Zavala, often rude and offensive as banter will be between two men who are as brothers, as they patrol the dangerous streets of LA. They joke about their race (one is white, one is Mexican), their families, their sex lives, their colleagues and their hopes for their children. You will laugh and smile with them. We see their women – Anna Kendrick and Natalie Martinez – and we witness their bravery under fire. Literally.
Unfortunately for Officers Taylor and Zavala, these streets are at war. Black and Hispanic gangs fight for control of the neighbourhood’s narcotics and when Taylor and Zavala stick their noses where they’re not wanted that’s it. They will be hunted. All the time, we follow these two cops on patrol, into their homes, their parties and their marriages and always smiling with them, feeling warm for them, sharing their fear. They’re such brave men but they’re also normal and immensely likeable. Thanks to the cameras they hold, we know them even better than we would otherwise.
The screening I went to featured subtitles and, to be honest, I was rather grateful for them. With almost every other word an expletive, the others rushed by so fast it was hard to make sense of the talk, especially when it came from the cartel. I don’t like excessive swearing, largely because it becomes meaningless through overuse. This film did prove the point and I didn’t care for it. I know cops and drug dealers and murderers swear; it’s not necessary to deafen me with it in a film. End of Watch also has moments of extreme violence and gore. While it didn’t reach the levels of Drive – when I had to coincide toilet breaks with head smashing – there were moments when I couldn’t look. There were other moments when, if I had eaten anything more than Haribo sharks, I would have thrown up. But this is just me – I am a sensitive soul. Other people will no doubt applaud it for its realism.
All in all, though, I was left shellshocked by End of Watch. I half expected a film I wouldn’t want to watch, but what I got was an extraordinarily intimate and human and even gentle portrait of two courageous young officers, both of whom are prepared to put their lives on the line time after time, have families and women who love them, are respected by their colleagues, and have to face the dregs of humanity day in, day out.
Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena are superb in their roles. Superb. Much of the dialogue is improvised and there would have been no movie to speak of if the two actors hadn’t gelled together so completely. So much of the film is funny! And so that makes other parts of the film very hard to take. The movie was filmed in a matter of days, after six months of training and research with the police. The result is a natural, realistic and human portrait of two cops as they go through their watch. Extraordinary. I’ve followed Jake Gyllenhaal’s career for years and with End of Watch he – and Michael Pena – has done something very special indeed.
End of Watch is out in the US already and will spread across Europe from November. It reaches the UK on 23 November. Watch it.