From writer/director David Ayer, this is very much the opposite of his 2005 flick ‘Harsh Times’, and stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena as two LAPD patrol men buddying up and busting crime in downtown Los Angeles, ‘district 13′, and it opens with a pretty awesome rallying call in the form of a voice-over from Gyllenhaal as their squad car hones in on a couple of gangbangers. Initially, the whole film is shot as a largely handheld camera piece, with our view switching between pinhole cameras on the officers’ uniforms, Gyllenhall’s handheld, and the camera on their vehicle. This creates a major problem with the film, as with others in the genre, as the beginning quickly becomes ‘end of ability to watch’ with shaky cam taken to extremes and time wasted justifying and talking about the various cameras. It’s not necessary to contain the footage of these films within the confines of the characters’ own photography equipment, the viewer should be in mind at all times and there is no reason at all not to switch between the handhelds and more traditional views. Eventually, the director seems to come to the same conclusion and ditches some of the handheld footage, which actually makes all the shaky use from before fairly pointless.
As the action begins to ramp up things get much more interesting. It’s where this style of filmmaking can be really effective, as we experience first hand the thrills and horrors of their occupation from their own point of view, and we really root for them as they deal with all manner of undesirables. These events are interspersed with ‘chum time’ as we get more insights into their private lives and their camaraderie. It’s unfortunately a little obvious and hackneyed, and initially slightly awkward to boot, though the actors seem to settle more into it as the film progresses, possibly as they become more familiar with each other in their roles. Some wonderful tension is created, but the flaws continually diffuse what could have been a much more intense and acute thriller.
The handheld filmmaking style, which really began to filter into the mainstream after the success of ‘The Blair Witch Project’ in 99, seems almost to be allowing ‘Realism’ into Hollywood via the back door. It has largely been confined to horror, where it continues to be refined by the likes of ‘Paranormal Activity’ 07 (featuring security cameras rather than handheld ones), in which series numbers 2 & 3 were arguably the best, and the actually pretty darn scary ‘Insidious’ (10). It could be that with this style of horror movie it has run its course – ‘Paranormal Activity 4’ (12), and the very similarly styled ‘Sinister’ (12) with Ethan Hawke were both very predictable in terms of when the scare was coming and in what form it would take, as well as how everything would end up. However, as evinced at times by ‘End of Watch’, Hollywood filmmakers still have a lot of unexplored territory to put to good effect with the technique, so long as they don’t shoot themselves in the foot by obsessing over it unnecessarily. For a couple of good uses of handhelds see horror film ‘Quarantine’ (08 – itself a remake of the also very good Spanish film ‘Rec’ 07), ‘Project X’ (12) which was kind of a feel good film done in an unexpected way, and ‘Troll Hunter’ (10), a Norwegian film which was beautifully shot and put together.