End of Watch (2012)

Posted by Ian Mantgani on 17th January, 2013

There’s a conversation near the beginning of End of Watch in which a black character talks about “the changing of the guard” – how the neighbourhood used to be African American, but now the Mexicans are taking over. The observation serves as a review of the material – no sooner has it been said than a bunch of Mexicans interrupt with a drive-by shooting, assuming the role of fearsome ethnic whipping-boys that blacks played for many a year.

This is one of the most codified films of recent years, and the film of 2012 that I could least believe critics were taking seriously. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña as a pair of Los Angeles patrolmen who “see more capers in half a shift than most officers see their entire careers” – but who remain unscathed from danger, including from machine-gun fire, until the exact moment it’s convenient for the plot – the film serves as a largely story-free walking tour of LAPD hero-worship and fear of the underclass. There are drug houses with beheaded, dismembered bodies, stabbings in eyes, machine guns, babies tied up in back rooms, and Latinas who, when not committing crimes, are shown in eerie night-vision green and cantered framing, so must be up to something. After establishing one young woman as the main gang’s most fearsome killer, End of Watch of course shows her make out with another woman – at this point I wondered if the film shouldn’t have been called Attack of the Scary Mexican Ghetto Lesbians.

Oh, but it’s okay – because the Peña character is Mexican! And the story treats him with all the expendability that a House Mexican requires. He and Gyllenhall wander the film calling each other “dude” – I don’t really remember much of their back-and-forth but did scrawl the note “shit banter re rubber bands” at one point. That several reviewers have praised their interplay makes me wonder if Arthur Lee, after reflecting that “the news today will be the movies of tomorrow,” ever thought that yesterday’s bad TV will be, too.

Apart from its hard-on for cops and questionable view of ethnics, End of Watch is notable for its inconsistent motif regarding camcorders. It starts with Gyllenhall recording himself in a video diary, shows gang members recording their crimes, has their victims doing the same, cuts to the view of the patrol car’s security camera, and seems like it’s going to structure itself around found footage and have something to say about a culture of self-recording. But this is abandoned after a few scenes as if it were one experimental episode in a TV cop series, and we have an incongruous mix of surveillance-style footage with an omniscient movie camera that inexplicably apes the style of handheld documentary video anyway.

The only things I’ll remember fondly from End of Watch are how stunning Natalie Martinez is as Peña’s wife, a prank involving putting shaving foam in the hand of someone sleeping before tickling their ear, and the badass response when one of the cops asks, “So Mr Big Evil, why do they call you Mr Big Evil?” And he says: “Cos my evil’s big!”