The following post, like most of the others on this blog, is full of spoilers.
Is David Ayer the James Ellroy of cinema? While Woody Harrelson’s portrayal of the articulate, manipulative, morally dubious police officer Dave Brown in Oren Moverman’s Rampart is undoubtedly the most Ellroy-esque protagonist to have been committed to the silver screen to date, Moverman himself does not appear to share Ellroy’s fascination with the LAPD or the LA crime scene. Indeed Rampart is much less a police procedural than a highly experimental character study that denies the audience access to the motivation of its subject thereby refusing to explain his consistently abhorrent behaviour. Although Ellroy, as co-writer, was quite obviously the creator of the complex Dave Brown, the film’s unusual and experimental structure can probably be attributed to Moverman. Similarly, Curtis Hanson’s LA Confidential, though a fine film, shares neither the spirit nor the structure of its source novel and comes across as a light, enjoyable pastiche of the seedy underbelly of 1940s LA. And De Palma’s The Black Dahlia? Watching that film I was reminded less of James Ellroy than Paul Gascoigne’s spell at Middlesborough – a once great talent tarnishing their legacy by not knowing when to quit. No, I think that Ayer is the closest thing that Hollywood has to an Ellroy, mining as he does the LAPD and the criminal fringes of LA for his source material.
End of Watch is his third directorial effort to date, following Harsh Times and Street Kings (a film that was initially based on an original script by Ellroy but which he subsequently refused to do any publicity for). It follows two young hotshot officers, Brian and Mike, played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena respectively, on their daily patrols of some of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in LA. Ayer, like Ellroy, has a visible admiration for cops although, in this film, he does not saddle his protagonists with any of the personal quirks or vices that one usually finds in the heroes of Ellroy’s noir fiction (usually booze, sex or violence related). In fact the two officers display an incredible aptitude for police work, making major busts with an almost implausible regularity while also finding the time to save three children from a burning house, an act of heroism for which they are awarded the Medal of Valor.
Yet in between these acts of heroism the film provides incredibly authentic portrayals of the relationship between the two men and the burgeoning romance between Gyllenhaal’s Brian and his girlfriend Janet (Anna Kendrick). Brian and Mike are not super suave like Bond or super cool like Bourne. Though both heroic and thoroughly decent, they are also somewhat irritating. Call me old fashioned but I find it difficult to admire, or even like, a man who wears Oakley sunglasses and performs a dance routine at his wedding. While wearing said Oakleys! And when they perform the old shaving cream in the hand prank on a sleeping workmate, they come across as arrogant and immature school bullies. There is also a callousness in their reaction to the plight of two fellow officers, one of whom suffers a stabbing to the eye while the other, a rookie female officer, endures a brutal beating at the hands of a violent thug. They display almost no sympathy for the two victims, dismissing the young female as somebody clearly not cut out for police work while being barely able to suppress giggles at her partner’s plight. The film’s visual style, which combines elements of found footage with post-Bourne handheld camerawork, enhances the sense of verisimilitude. This authenticity separates it from other procedurals and action films.
While Ellroy’s influence is apparent throughout Ayer’s oeuvre, it is difficult to imagine that Ayer was not also influenced, in some way, by the 1998 Hong Kong police drama Expect the Unexpected while making End of Watch. This was one of the first genre “experiments” of the then recently formed Milkyway Image studio. Led by producer/director Johnnie To, the studio garnered fame around the turn of the century for its stable of directors’ output of self-aware, post-modern and formally experimental crime films such as The Mission, The Longest Nite and Too Many Ways to be Number One.
Up until its penultimate scene, Expect the Unexpected comes across as a fairly middle of the road police drama about a squad of detectives on the trail of two gangs of mainland Chinese armed robbers. There are also a couple of fairly banal soap opera style romantic sub-plots running alongside the main narrative. The detectives themselves are less characters than a collection of stereotypes. Each of the central protagonists can be adequately summed up in no more than a sentence. Simon Yam plays the dedicated, workaholic leader of the unit, Ken, a man with little time for personal relationships. Lau Ching-Wan is Sam, his laid back, charismatic colleague. Ken and Sam vie for the affections of Mandy (Yo Yo Mong) an attractive but timid waitress at a nearby cafe who witnesses a crime early in the film. Shiu Hung Hui is the hapless elder statesman of the group (quelle surprise), Ben, while Raymond Wong plays the young, pretty boy, ladies man, Jimmy. Macy (Ruby Wong) is the token female of the group, diligent and hardworking, she seems to bear an unrequited romantic affection for Ken. The two mainland gangs embody the two types of villains in cop dramas. The first group of armed robbers are a bungling, cowardly group, seemingly there to provide light relief, while the second group appear as more ruthless, violent criminals who seem to be of greater threat to the detectives.
What is interesting about the film is how the narrative deals with these archetypal characters and situations. As the title suggests, audience expectations are confounded at every opportunity. In the love triangle between Ken, Sam and Mandy the director, Patrick Yau, gives every indication that Mandy will choose the sincere and dedicated Ken over the more overtly charming Sam. Yet it is Sam and Mandy who end up together. Similarly, it is revealed towards the end of the film that Ruby Wong’s female cop bore no romantic feeling for Ken but rather harboured an unrequited affection for the oblivious Jimmy. But it is the climactic shootout for which Expect the Unexpected garnered renown. Having just successfully taken care of the dangerous gang of criminals, Ken and his team end up in a shootout with the gang of bumbling clowns. Yet, contrary to all expectations, this seemingly benign bunch of crooks turn out to be expert marksmen and the shootout is violent and bloody with Ken, Macy, Ben and Sam all meeting their deaths. Only Jimmy, who was recovering in hospital at the time, survives. The disjunction in tone between the ending and the rest of the film is jarring.
Some critics have dismissed Expect the Unexpected as a one note gag, existing solely for its unconventional ending. And there is undoubtedly some merit in this argument for were the detectives to survive the film would be fairly forgettable. Yet there are some other interesting touches. Indeed, when we are first introduced to the seemingly more dangerous of the two mainland gangs, there is a harshness and a danger to the scene that seems at odds with the light, disposable tone of much of the rest of the film. In their apartment they have imprisoned two women, both bound and gagged, one of whom is topless while the other is wearing only underwear. Prior to a shootout with the police one of the gang members brutally murders one of them with a machine gun. This sequence has a genuine sense of danger and brutality that the film eschews up until the aforementioned shootout. Although the film is little more than an exercise in defying generic conventions it remains an unusual and interesting watch that calls attention to the artifice that is inherent in generic cop films.
Similarly, in the climactic sequence of End of Watch, our two heroes are riddled with bullets by the members of a criminal gang that appeared sporadically throughout, usually bickering with one another. In this instance the scene acts as an interesting counterpoint to the incredible displays of heroism shown by the two cops during the proceeding ninety minutes. But this is not a mere narrative trick, as was the case in Expect the Unexpected, as it serves to underline the genuine danger of their profession and elevates the film above mere genre fare. Their personality flaws, coupled with the genuine sense of danger generated by the realistic style and the bloody, tragic conclusion, remove the aspirational element common to the genre. Rather than acting solely as a counterpoint to what has gone before it, the shocking, downbeat nature of the scene serves to justify what we have already seen. The film critic Mark Kermode argued that the somewhat implausible generic narrative of the film was slightly at odds with its earthy and authentic character studies. There is certainly some legitimacy in this argument however I would suggest that this scene solves this problem by illustrating that the incredible police work that these men carry out is not just borne out of generic narrative necessity but actually has genuine consequences. Ultimately, it allows Ayer to make the point that police officers like those portrayed by Brian and Mike face very real danger and deserve our respect (if not necessarily our affection).
And yet, in the second last scene of the film, Mike’s funeral, we learn that Brian actually survived the attack as he appears alongside Janet and Mike’s widow at the funeral, devastated at the death of his partner. The film ends with some footage, shot several months earlier we are told, of the two protagonists having a laugh while on patrol. These moments are perhaps the weakest of the entire film. While they do not necessarily undermine the rest of the film they do serve to lessen the emotional impact of the climactic gunfight. It’s a pity the film just didn’t end there. By surviving, Brian goes from a credible, flawed but brave manly man to a cross between Jesse Custer and the Bruce Willis character from Unbreakable.
Although End of Watch is a superior film to Expect the Unexpected in many ways ultimately, purely in terms of execution, the latter is possibly the more successful of the two. If one’s aim is simply to defy expectations then Expect the Unexpected unquestionably achieves its aim. End of Watch, though more ambitious in scope, is ultimately let down by its final two scenes.