Early in his career, David Ayer made his rep with Training Day. Now, clearly, he’s made his peace with Hollywood. Ayer is back with the uniforms on the mean streets of South Central L.A., but his trademark grit and authenticity have been traded in for a far more palatable commodity in Tinseltown: the appearance of grit and authenticity, a patina that lends itself well to soft story arcs and tidy love interests and a melodramatic climax. So, where once the police badges were tarnished, now they glow like a saint’s halo. Yep, what we have here is a panegyric to the boys in blue, where squad-car buddies compete for their moral merit badges. Really, this is an open and shut case of good cop/better cop.
But back to authenticity’s appearance. Sporting a shaved head and a winning smile respectively, Taylor and Zavala (Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña) share not only that squad car but also a penchant for mini-cameras worn on their vests. Seems Taylor is an aspiring filmmaker shooting a day-in-the-life video for classroom credit, a happy coincidence that allows Ayer to go all YouTubey on us – you know, lots of point-of-view shots and spinning angles and general graininess. More happily still, the bad guys out there share an identical taste in cinematography; apparently, when not busy packing heat or gang-banging or being crackheads, they too are wannabe auteurs, or so the direction would have us think. Anyway, add up the visuals and eureka – faux grit.
Real banter, though. During the downtime behind the wheel, buddy cops do love to chat and, here, Ayer hasn’t lost his rough touch: The dialogue is quick, witty and entirely credible. So are the lead performances. Rambling on about their workplace worries and their domestic arrangements – shaved head has an exciting new girlfriend, winning smile has a beloved wife – Gyllenhaal and Peña make for believable buds and give the picture its breezy pace. We definitely buy into the humanizing banter.
It’s the lionizing action that’s no sale. Suspicions are raised early, in a sequence where Zavala, bad-mouthed by a gangsta, sheds his gun-belt and challenges the dude to a fair fistfight. Which he inevitably wins. Which prompts the gangsta to give him props for being an honourable fellow. Sorry, but I’m calling b.s. on the authenticity scale (“Ya’ feel me?”).
More troubling is the script’s penchant for overdemonizing the ghetto’s black residents. Now I wouldn’t expect junkies to be model parents but, to carve out some quiet time for a fix, do they really duct-tape their babies’ mouths and lock the tykes in a closet? On the subject of imperilled infants, don’t forget the ones left behind in a burning building. Our heroes don’t – they brave the flames to make the rescue, then, aw shucks, deny their heroism. A stash of illicit firearms, a garage-full of illegal immigrants, and a nasty drug cartel later, good cop and better cop are in deep do-do in a dark alley. Guns blaze, blood is let, yet rest assured that, even in the cold aftermath as the credits roll, their sacred bond is resurrected. Not to mention the banter.
No doubt, these twin saviours are a likeable tandem, and they bear their cross lightly. Still, End of Watch suffers from no end of sanctimony. Sainthood is all well and fine but it ain’t drama and, on screen at least, the question cries out: Where’s a corrupt cop when you need him?