By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
End of Watch is a repellent movie, first for its shaky-cam conceit rendering much of the action incomprehensible, and finally for seeking to entertain viewers through the thuggish execution of a police officer.
You can argue it's only a movie, and such desecration of the thin blue line occurs in the line of duty. Yet for this resident of a Tampa Bay community still coping with the murders of six officers in the past three years, End of Watch feels basely cruel. Another time, another place, the feeling might be different. Not here, not now.
The video camera is operated by LAPD officer Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal), against the direct orders of his sergeant, complaints by colleagues and cautions of his partner, Mike Zavala (Michael Pena). This isn't just an invasion of privacy and violation of policy but a distraction from protection Brian is entrusted to provide. It is narcissism to a reckless degree, adding little except the feeling of paying to watch an uncensored episode of Cops.
End of Watch contains no discernible plot, only a procession of inner city horrors Brian and Mike encounter: the rotted corpse of an elderly woman, a room crowded with trafficked humans and crack-addicted parents with trussed-up children stashed in a closet. Answering a call for backup leads the duo to a mercilessly beaten officer and another with a knife in his eye.
There is only one positive instance of first responder heroism: a rescue from a burning house with commendations for Brian and Mike to show for it. Of course, that's after Brian has recorded his partner beating up a suspect, cheering him along. What would Internal Affairs think of that?
Writer-director David Ayer also stuffs clip-on cameras in Brian and Mike's shirt pockets, utilizing their patrol car's dashboard cam for added coverage. When those lenses aren't enough, gang and cartel members conveniently have cameras running, too.
Yet Ayer doesn't go all-in with the gimmick. There's always a jarring camera angle — up the barrel of a gun, for example — that can't possibly come from an amateur recording. Either make the movie entirely as faux cinema verite or film it straight, but make up your mind. Each tell-tale shot diminishes the impact of the idea. Most shots keeping the jittery conceit intact are nauseating.
The lead acting is commendable, with Gyllenhaal and Pena at ease with macho camaraderie, employing gallows humor to manage the job. Everyone else has one note to play: concerned girlfriend (Anna Kendrick), accustomed wife (Natalie Martinez) and varying shades of police and gang personality. None gets a chance to make more than an immediate impression, as Ayer careens to the next incident.
That is, until the final minutes when the cartel lures Brian and Mike into an ambush and End of Watch goes where I really hoped it wouldn't. Even worse, Ayer attempts to soften the blow with a hollow flashback to happier times. He has no clue, and perhaps doesn't care, that there are ways to honor fallen officers other than watching one violently die.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.