I can’t say I’ve ever been a fan of US cop dramas, films or otherwise. Hill Street Blues is probably the last example of the genre I ever watched and that was a bazillion years ago. Showing my age. After that, in film at least, US buddy cop dramas in particular were a common trope from Lethal Weapon to Bad Boys and everything inbetween, and realism was never high up on the list of priorities.
End of Watch surfaced last year and I ended up watching it the other night as a random choice, purely because I’d heard it was supposed to be quite good and the film we wanted to watch (Django Unchained) was unavailable.
Firstly, this film is chock full of cop-movie clichés, from the banter between the leads played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña, to the feats of heroism and in particular the overly-intense Mexican gangster types. But it doesn’t matter (well it does in some instances…) because the film is shot from such a fresh point of view that it completely engages you. The banter is shot from a dashboard camera in the faces of the two leads, and these scenes anchor the film with believable humour and interactions, often with no relevance to the plot, but this film cares more about its characters than the loose plotline involving Mexican drug cartels.
And it’s the characters and their developing story that set this film alight. It’s not long before we find ourselves utterly invested in their lives. They are an incredibly likeable pair, and not without flaws, but the camaraderie and the close attention to their personal lives draws us in and makes us worry all the more for their safety. There is a feeling to this film, in the realism of most of the situations, that anything can happen. The outcome is never certain. Life is cheap on their watch, and death always close by.
There is a found-footage aspect to the way the film is shot and it sets its stall out that way, but doesn’t stick to it. A shaky, roving camera is still employed in scenes where there couldn’t possibly be a camera. That struck me as a little lazy and inconsistent in terms of style, even when I was still enjoying it, but it did draw me out of the movie when Gyllenhaal and Anna Kendrick are enjoying some ‘alone-time’ and we are still seeing it as though someone is standing in the bedroom shooting them with a handheld camera (which they are – it’s a film after all, but I don’t want my attention to be called to this fact). That said, it’s the camera-work that makes the film so special, putting the viewer right in the action, whether it’s a car chase and shootout or a mundane street scene, it creates a convincing point of view that makes you look over your shoulder.
South Central L.A. is the stage for the film, and while there is surely some realism in the way it’s portrayed, it’s so difficult to transcend the tropes set up by the glut of films from the 1990s that were set there. Boyz n the Hood, Menace II Society, South Central and so many others. There is some mention of how the neighbourhood has changed, which could potentially have been an interesting sociological angle – looking at how Hispanics have moved in large numbers, but in the film, it’s the Mexicans who end up being the bad guys instead of black people. That’s a little unfair, as they do balance it out with Michael Peña showing the flip-side of Mexican culture in L.A., but the stereotypical gangsters are a little ridiculous at times with dialogue that consists of saying ‘fuckin’ at a machine-gun rate.
I really wasn’t expecting to enjoy the film as much as I did, and by the end I was utterly gripped and absorbed in the lives of the two cops. The point of view is so deep that at times you do feel like a silent participant, sitting in the cop car with them listening to the wonderful dialogue exchanges; in the choking miasma of a burning building with them as they rescue some kids from a house fire; eavesdropping on a late-night drunken conversation at the end of a wedding, the kind fuelled by alcohol as well as emotion.
Doubtlessly, the film will not appeal to everyone, and perhaps some people will only see the flaws; the clichés. Maybe even some people might find it boring as its random, directionless nature–which so well represents the highs and lows of a typical work shift–leads them into one drug-den or conversation about relationships too many.
All I’ll say is, even if US cop dramas aren’t your thing, try a fresh point of view and give it a chance.