End of Watch begins the same way that every movie that uses the found footage/fake documentary format begins—with the hero talking directly to the camera, offering a rather long-winded and not particularly persuasive explanation for why he’s decided to videotape his every waking moment.
In this case, the hero is a cop named Brian (Jake Gyllenhaal), and the reason he’s filming everything he does is because he wants to be a lawyer, and in order to get into law school, he needs to take an elective. The elective he’s chosen is film production. You’d think that with all the police work and non-elective courses he has to do, he wouldn’t have the time, energy, or inclination to shoot and edit 200 hours worth of footage for an absurdly ambitious film school project, but no. Apparently the movie takes place in a world where there are 48 hours in the day, only two of which are required for sleep and eating.
It isn’t long until End of Watch gets around to the second most common cliché of the mockumentary—the scene where an irate co-worker yells at the cameraman, demands that he stop filming him, then places his palm over the lens. We’re only five minutes in, and already the movie has managed to do what Chronicle and The Devil Inside and Project X took ten minutes to do. Say what you will, but cramming two of the most obvious clichés into such a condensed timeframe is, in a weird way, a fairly impressive accomplishment.
Soon we’re introduced to Brian’s partner, Mike (Michael Peña). During the first drug bust of the morning, a criminal insults Mike in the sort of casual, off-hand manner that any LAPD officer who’s been on the job for more than two days should be used to. Mike responds to this by challenging the criminal to a fist fight. The criminal agrees, and Brian videotapes the scuffle. As expected, the man who’s been trained to take down criminals takes down the criminal. Is the criminal upset? Does he threaten to file a lawsuit? On the contrary, he admires the cop for illegally assaulting him. Later in the movie, he will provide the cop with important information that he probably wouldn’t have provided had it not been for the beating.
Asking us to believe that LAPD officers would risk their careers by instigating and videotaping fist fights is one thing. Asking us to believe that the best way to earn a criminal’s trust is to videotape yourself assaulting him is quite another. Sadly, things only get more implausible from here.
Soon we’re introduced to a gang of drug dealers/human traffickers, one of whom also owns a video camera. As it happens, he too is in the habit of videotaping everything he does, which includes participating in the odd drive-by shooting. (Perhaps he’s enrolled in the same film program as Brian?) For some reason, none of the other gang members seem particularly concerned that a videotape exists of them committing murders—a videotape which, if shown in court, would look, well, kind of incriminating.
The idea of two rival groups of morons who obsessively videotape every moronic thing that they do sounds like the sort of thing that could provide the basis for a great comedy, but alas, End of Watch takes itself pretty seriously. Written and directed by David Ayer (Training Day), the movie tries to offer a gritty, realistic look at what a day in the life of a cop patrolling the more dangerous sections of L.A. is really like. In other words, it tries to be a mockumentary version of Training Day. Needless to say, it falls significantly short of that mark.
As the story goes on, the filmmakers seem to lose track of the fact that the movie started out as a fake documentary. In one scene, both Brian and Mike are visible from the waist up, and neither of them appears to be holding the camera. Did Brian hire a camera crew for his student film? It isn’t that implausible. By this point in the movie, Brian’s documentary makes a typical episode of Cops look like Driving Miss Daisy. If my job were that eventful, I’d hire a camera crew to follow me around too.
All of this culminates in one of the most preposterous shootouts to ever appear in a studio film. At some point during the research phase, Ayer seems to have gotten the words “Mexican drug cartel” mixed up with “al-Qaeda.” For the offense of being the first two cops to stumble onto one of their crime scenes, the drug cartel decides that it must assassinate Brian and Mike. They do this by running around in the open with automatic weapons, firing indiscriminately. When back up arrives, the drug dealers are completely unfazed. The mission to assassinate Mike and Brian is apparently a martyrdom operation.
Perhaps I was too quick when I suggested earlier that the movie wasn’t a comedy.