It would seem writer/director David Ayer is a one-trick horse who solely specialises in depicting Los Angelenos who straddle the line between law and criminality.
Training Day (2001) and Street Kings (2008), which he scripted and directed respectively, as well as many films he has co-written – The Fast and the Furious, Dark Blue, S.W.A.T. – all feature at least one member of LA’s finest who is either on the take or flirting with the dark side, while the unstable lead of Ayer’s directorial debut Harsh Times (2005) can’t decide whether to join the LAPD, work for Homeland Security or become a drug dealer. It would seem that Ayer affords his protagonists the luxury of considering a dizzying array of options while he himself is sadly loath to.
So when, at the beginning of Ayer’s latest feature, officer Brian Taylor (Gyllenhaal) is heard in voiceover declaring: “We stand together, a thin blue line, protecting the prey from the predators, the good from the bad,” viewers may be forgiven for expecting these sanctimonious words to foreshadow a rather blurred morality, yet this is not the case. Ayer’s trademark raw authenticity has here been supplanted for a far more palatable commodity − the appearance of raw authenticity, a superficial sheen that lends itself well to gentle story arcs, appeasing familial bliss and a melodramatic climax. As Taylor and his partner Mike Zavala (Pena) patrol the streets of South Central, they adhere to a strict routine of good cop/great cop, rescuing children from burning buildings, fighting crime and bleeding for the cause.
Meanwhile, as though to underline the film’s ethical certitudes, Ayer provides a counter-balance in the form of a Mexican street gang led by a man known only as Big Evil.
The film’s racial politics are thankfully a little more opaque than its morality, and much of the mocking brotherly banter between Taylor and Hispanic Zavala is dedicated to highlighting their ethnic and cultural differences, while the crimes they investigate trace a demographic shift from black American to Mexican dominance. None of this is subtle – black gangster Mr Tre is in the middle of complaining that local chicken shops have been overtaken by taco stands and that “it’s going to be extinct niggers pretty soon,” when an expressly territory-marking drive-by shooting interrupts him, conducted by Big Evil’s gang as though in direct response to Mr Tre’s pronouncements. Ayer apparently felt the need to paint us a picture.
Still, a certain balance is maintained, albeit contrived – if the deleterious impact of Hispanic gangs and Mexican drug cartels is highlighted, a more salutary image is suggested by scenes involving Zavala’s family celebrations; and if Big Evil’s gang includes a no-nonsense lesbian, then Taylor’s unit has one of those too (Ferrera). Accordingly, the film offers a dialectic between exclusion and integration, order and underworld, which strives to be even-handed while being absurdly broad in its delineation.
Ayer’s decision to incorporate POV camerawork – compiling what we see from a (fictive) selection of digicam footage shot by Taylor, Zavala and the crews of Mr Tre and Big Evil – was no doubt intended to infuse End of Watch with a gritty, ground-level realism, but it is undermined by the jarring melding of this footage with other, entirely non-diegetic shots (often confusingly filmed in the same visceral handheld style). Viewers attempting to determine who’s filming what at any given moment will quickly discover that the authenticity normally associated with this cinematic method yields a messier kind of postmodernism which in no way serves – let alone protects – an otherwise over-simplified story of good versus evil.
End of Watch (15)
Dir: David Ayer; US action/thriller, 2012, 109 mins; Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Pena, Anna Kendrick, Natalie Martinez, America Ferrera
Premiered November 29