End of Watch (US - BD RA)
Gabe records the writing this review with his laptop camera. He's in his chonies...
In their mission to abide by their oath to serve and protect, Officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena) have formed a powerful brotherhood to ensure they both go home at the end of watch. But nothing can prepare them for the violent backlash that happens after they pull over the members of a notorious drug cartel for a routine traffic stop. (From Sony’s official synopsis)
It appears that screenwriter/director David Ayer has a bit of an obsession with LAPD police officers. In fact, I’m not sure there’s ever been a single Hollywood filmmaker that has revisited the same, strangely specific subject matter as many times as Ayer. The only proper comparisons are classic filmmakers that dealt largely in a single genre, specifically western directors like Howard Hawks and John Ford, though Hawks and Ford were actually pretty famous dabbled in multiple genres. I suppose this makes Ayer the heir to the throne of the most fervent spaghetti western directors, like Sergio Leone, or better yet, Sergio Corbucci, who used the western as a means to explore politics and other themes not normally equated to the genre. Still, Ayer’s obsession is unique in modern terms. Following his first spec script for the largely historically inaccurate submarine movie U-571, Ayers wrote or co-wrote nothing but movies pertaining to the LAPD, including both rudimentary crowd-pleasers, like The Fast and the Furious and S.W.A.T., and more in-depth explorations of the ethical ups and downs of a Los Angeles cop’s life, like Dark Blue and the Academy Award-winning Training Day. His directorial efforts have included Harsh Times, an exploration of South Central gang life, Street Kings and this film, End of Watch, which appears on paper to be generally the exact same movie as Street Kings. For the record, I haven’t actually seen any of Ayers’ previous directorial efforts, so, despite his curious fixations, I’m not really able to compare anything but his writing style.
Every subgenre must apparently have its ‘found footage’ day in the sun and it appears that End of Watch is the cop genre’s turn at the fountain. Oddly enough, however, the found footage concept is all about the illusion of real-life documentation and real-life cop documentaries are far from a rare item. From Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line through almost 25 years of Cops, a ride-along weekly TV series, and entire cable stations worth of similar content ( The First 48, Cold Case Files, Wildest Police Videos, et cetera), real cop documentary series/movies are a thoroughly engrained part of the American zeitgeist. Still, Ayer appears to have seen an opportunity to take the traditional cinéma vérité approach that redefined the cop genre in the ‘60s and‘70s to its nth degree here. His approach is sometimes distracting, especially when he cuts away from our two leads to see the story from the criminals’ point-of-view (this betrays an otherwise solid structure), but he comes awfully close to achieving the kind of balance between heavy-mockumentary and cinéma vérité Neill Blomkamp struck when he made District 9. There are breaks from the shake and jostle to establishing shots of the city, but these are pretty rare, making for an occasionally exhausting experience in dizzying, subjective camera work. I imagine I would’ve had to leave the theater to vomit if I saw this one on the big screen. While nauseating, the faux-documentary thing does create a genuinely menacing air that rivals most straight horror found-footage films. The extreme facial close-ups, choppy editing, and shallow-focus fisheye effects are all effectively unnerving.
End of Watch is largely an exercise in style for Ayer and in discipline for his actors, which tends to leave the screenplay (reportedly written in only six days) a bit behind the curve. There’s just not a whole lot of focus to the story, but this is usually okay, because the stringent adherence to authenticity and strong characterizations mostly work with the episodic treatment (minus the Latin gangsters – Ayer writes them like dime store caricatures). Problems arise when the bigger picture is sharpened and Ayer’s social and political observations are put into focus. It feels like the lessons of valor and virtue should be more hidden beneath the more matter-of-fact approach. The dialogue is a bit precious at times and the suspension of disbelief is occasionally strained in an effort to humanize the characters (their personal lives are made up mostly of clichés that tend to detract from the otherwise solid ‘greatest hits over about a year period’ structure), but the performances are genuine and often stand apart from the actors’ recognizable faces. The more playful interactions between Officers Taylor and Zavala are also pretty funny. Jake Gyllenhaal’s involvement (he also acted as executive producer) draws interesting comparisons to his work with Sam Mendes’ Jarhead. The two characters he plays could be the same guy, but the difference in Ayers and Mendes’ approaches are legion. Jarhead is a drawn-out, uneventful practice in utter cinematic beauty and End of Watch is a clip-show told through rough and chopped imagery. Pena is also very impressive, considering that I’ve never fully bought into his supposed skills until seeing this film. The rest of the cast is so successfully anonymous that I didn’t realize any of them were famous until it was pointed out to me.
End of Watch was mostly shot using a series of consumer-friendly digital HD formats in an effort to maintain an authentic, dashboard camera look throughout the film. The look is at times raw, but on average is quite clean and well represented on this 1.78:1, 1080p Blu-ray transfer. There are a couple of different camera qualities – the cops have dashboard cams (digital-look, heavier edge enhancement and some combing effects) and specially made, pin-sized micro cameras (sharp, shallow focus, fisheye effects) while the gangsters have lower-rent camcorders that let less light into the lens or are specifically black & white (grainy, dim, and artefact-laden). The majority of the film is shot on the invisible cameraman’s bigger-lens, Canon brand HD cameras and these bulk shots are the cleanest. The colour quality and cleanliness is hit and miss, depending on the natural lighting – sunlight looks pretty great, bright indoor scenes are sharp and blown-out, and night shots are grainier with less pure hues and blacks. Details are continuously sharp in close-up, but so much of the film is made up of close-ups that background patterns and textures are left shallow. Only the expansive helicopter shots of the city skyline really extend the focus and detail. There’s really no over-arching palette here, just relatively simple, natural, and eclectic source hues.
Ayer holds relatively true to his pseudo ‘found footage’ formula in terms of his imagery, but the sound design is a bit looser. The sound of this DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is relatively centered and in the spirit of a mini-video camera’s mono microphone, but the bits are finely separated and the important elements easily discernable. In reality these scenes would be a mostly fuzzy, very un-audience-friendly mess. The comparatively un-vérité shootouts between gangs open up the channels a lot more and include major directional work. End of Watch isn’t an action film, so there aren’t a lot of shootouts, but they’re plenty high-powered to compete with less realistic, more effects-heavy blockbusters in terms of audio fury. Other direction-heavy moments include a fire rescue and a brief, super-stylized surveillance sequence. Music plays a major role that also marks the sound design as ‘unrealistic.’ This includes both David Sardy’s largely ambient score (it breaks out into bombastic ‘hero’ moments a few times) and very loud, stereo-heavy, pop music enhancements.
The extras begin with a feature commentary from Ayer. As I said in the feature review section, I’m not too well versed in the writer/director’s films and find his obsession with the LAPD interesting, so I was definitely looking forward to the where, why, and when of this story. Ayer says that the idea of a found footage cop movie was brought to him and that he was initially skeptical, but found inspiration in real footage he was shown of cops filming their daily routines. He mixes this discussion of pre-to-post-production influence with more scene-specific descriptions of the more technically difficult sequences (he describes his camera systems without confusing technical jargon). This is a full-bodied, usually honest, and informative track that suffers a tiny bit from Ayer’s occasionally defensive tone (usually in reference to the supposed realism of the events of the film). Surprisingly, his aggressively positive assessment (verging on hero-worship) of the real LAPD is infectious, not taxing or phony.
Up next is a huge collection of deleted/alternate/extended scenes (46:40, HD). I had assumed that this would be mostly made up of different takes on improvised dialogue, but there’s a fair amount of deleted back-story and additional daily/nightly trials revealed, none of which would’ve really added anything to this already slightly unfocused movie. The piece I enjoyed the most was a talking head interview between Taylor and Zavala on the fire sequence, seemingly for a local newscast. These take up too much time to include in the film proper, but make for a nice piece of extra content, especially since we’re supposed to pretend the movie is sort of real. This is followed by a collection of EPK featurettes – Fate with a Badge (2:10, HD), In the Streets (2:10, HD), Women on the Watch (2:00, HD), Watch Your Six (2:40, HD), and Honors (2:00, HD). Things end with trailers for Universal home video releases.
I had very little interest in the concept or style of End of Watch and ended up pleasantly surprised. It’s overlong and shifts focus a few too many times, but it’s also dramatically and viscerally quite satisfying. This Blu-ray release is certainly a little rough-looking (that’s kind of the point), but is sharp where it counts and features a well-balanced DTS-HD MA soundtrack. The extras include a strong writer/director commentary and a big pile of deleted footage.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 22nd January 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Writer/Director Commentary, Deleted/Extended/Alternate Scenes, EPK Featurettes, Trailers, DVD Copy, Digital Copy, UltraViolet Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: John Ayer
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Peña, Natalie Martinez, Anna Kendrick, David Harbour, America Ferrera
Genre: Action, Crime, Drama and Thriller
Length: 110 minutes
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