Screenwriter turned director David Ayer has been following in the footsteps of writer James Ellroy's modern hard-boiled pulp crime fiction for a while now, with his high point so far his script for Antoine Fuqua's Training Day, whose crooked cop/villain gave Denzel Washington a well-deserved Academy Award. Mr. Ayer has actually worked with Ellroy as well, in Dark Blue for Ron Shelton and in his own second directing job, Street Kings, but his work also owes much to the classic film noir of European stylists such as Jean-Pierre Melville or Jules Dassin. As a director, nevertheless, Mr. Ayer isn't exactly on that page as of yet, as End of Watch amply demonstrates.

     An Ellroy-light paean to the hard-working blue-collar police officers of the Los Angeles Police Department set in modern-day South Central (where the director grew up), End of Watch leans heavily on the macho heroics of the band of brothers fighting on the side of the law, following the daily routines of beat cops Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña). But its mostly handheld pseudo-vérité fly-on-the-wall style, explained through Taylor's constant filming of these routines as a college project for his law degree, suggests a will to deconstruct those heroics that Mr. Ayer doesn't take all the way through. The director does not shy from showing the darker sides of a cop's life (Taylor wants to "make detective" but isn't beyond the occasional heavy-handedness), and is best when putting it up against the sense of fear and insecurity on the job - as seen in a visceral house fire sequence that stands head and shoulders as End of Watch's best moment: the central device of constant filming loses its show-off documenting of daily life to suddenly become an unself-conscious, natural record, unlike most everywhere else in the film.

     But Mr. Ayer doesn't take the device all the way to its final consequences, occasionally breaking the convention with a couple of scenes that remind far too much of a first-person shooter video-game, leading to a rather predictable, conventional ending, conventionally filmed. The film itself seemed to bode well from its initial scenes, with an almost plotless, scene-setting and character-building stretch, but the progressive reliance on cop movie tropes results in an awkward film that wants to have its cake and eat it too. The generally spot-on cast is not at fault; it probably required a more experienced director to pull off what Mr. Ayer was aiming for in End of Watch, but it's no shame to fail trying.

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Peña, Anna Kendrick, Natalie Martinez, America Ferrera, Frank Grillo, David Harbour, Maurice Compte

Director and writer: David Ayer
Cinematography: Roman Vasyanov  (colour, processing by Efilm, prints by Deluxe)
Music: David Sardy
Designer: Devorah Herbert
Costumes: Mary Claire Hannan
Editor: Dody Dorn
Producers: John Lesher, Mr. Ayer, Nigel Sinclair, Matt Jackson (Exclusive Media, EFF Hedge Fund, Le Grisbi Productions, Crave Films)
USA, 2012, 108 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1 (Lisbon), November 16th 2012


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