End of Watch
Try as he might, David Ayer’s glum aesthetic really isn’t going to win any new fans any time soon, nor is it going to approach thematic heft or filmmaking prowess. He likes making ugly films, which is fine, except for two reasons. Firstly, he has not a clue that ugliness is not synonymous with pointing a camera and shooting, and that a great many films have put much effort into carefully constructing their ugliness over time. End of Watch is not one of those films, and thus it seems all a bit more dulled than truly grimy or gritty.
Secondly, he fails to realize that making an ugly, purposefully nihilistic film is wholly at odds with turning around and making us like the characters at the center of the film and indeed, trying to moralize their efforts. And try to moralize Ayer does, his archly “realist” visual style uneasily melding with old school 80’s traditionalism to produce something more than a bit racist and more than a few bits archly-serious about its racism. If those slam-bang 80’s films existed in a cartoon screenwriter’s concoction, Ayer desperately wants us to look at his menacing film as something more authentic, making its deep love for the blue at the expense of the black and brown all the more noticeable and all the more problematic. For this is not a nuanced movie, nor does it have any interest in exploring complicated issues of street life with an eye for realist urban decay. It gives us two police officers, Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña), straps a camera to them, and has them go about their day battling the ethnics of the world. It demonizes the film’s Latin community, with Peña as the exception meant to prove the rule and save the film from deserving questions about ethics.
And this isn’t just a matter of the film taking neutral ground – the archly-stereotypical gangsters of the film’s world are otherized left and right and they’re filmed with a certain horror movie dread about their presence. One could say the film showcases them this way because it is told from the voice of its two officers, but that doesn’t explain why Ayer’s sometimes third-person-objective camera still spreads sermons for the officers. Nor does it explain why a film from one perspective can’t, with a nuanced director in tow, subtly subvert and critique that perspective. Yet Ayer is not a nuanced director, and it’s something of a personal relief then that the film is not particularly well made nor well directed, or it would be a bit difficult to feel icky about the film’s morality without all manner of asterisks and begrudging admittances.
This all being said, the film has a deeply felt core lacking in so many of Ayer’s films in the form of the two men he chooses to focus on: Gyllenhaal and Peña. Put simply, these two breath a lo-fi life into these two easy-going characters that melds low-key camaraderie with anxious nerviness like few movie characters these days. Truth be told, these two give the film a lived-in quality far more than any of Ayer’s put-on camera self-wanking ever could. They are worth far more than any vague neo-realist non-narrative aspirations whereby Ayer strives for raw feeling above story, for the film ultimately injects a tepid story to undo any claim that it was ever really, truly committed to its meandering, formless vibe as more than a gimmick. Ayer’s characterization wants these guys be macho types, and it’s a testament to their skill as actors that they are wholly suffer-able, and often even in the vicinity of likable, when the film around them tries so hard to undo their goodwill.
Sabotage is a very bad film. It is not, however, a conventionally bad film. It is, instead, deeply confused about how it is bad, and bad not for not trying but bad because it tries many things somewhat hilariously with no sense of how they fit together. It’s an Arnold Schwarzenegger film, of course, but it does not play like one. It plays more like a grisly, gruesome take on And Then There Were None, with good ol’ Arnie as the no-nonsense leader of a band of mercenaries slowly being picked off after losing a rather large sum of money they had stolen. The film vaguely seems like it wishes to be taken seriously as a horror film, but it’s not remotely scary, nor does it have any idea how the visual language of horror functions and flows. And, excepting a few sequences, it’s not much of an action film either, mired as it is in self-seriousness and completely unwilling to thrill or find any sense of joy in its glum, overbearing spiritlessness.
The only reasonable interpretation of the film’s existence is that it was intended as a sort of modern, darker venue for Schwarzenegger to recast his no-longer limber figure in a drearier light more suited to less “physical activity” and more “being an old curmudgeon”. And for most of the film, it tries very deeply to do this, but is wholly misguided in the process. David Ayer’s directorial vision about how to convey “seriousness” is to do what he always does: focus on the grim and naughty facts of his characters to convey their worrisome, less-than-wholesome nature, and to balance this out with a heaping dose of still-kind-of wanting to think these characters are still “awesome” anyway. You see, Ayer deeply wants to have his nihilist cake and eat his post-Call Of Duty-world one too, and the results are not only poorly formed, but sort of disgusting and misogynist.
Which is to say, this is a deeply immature film that wishes wholeheartedly to be seen as “mature”, but the only way it knows how to do this is by replacing nuance with morose solemnity and trading in filmmaking prowess for grubby ugliness. Indeed, this is an ugly film, barely shot through with Ayer’s penchant for hand-held camera to the point where it doesn’t even particularly qualify as directing. It’s not even subversively ugly in a midnight movie sense. It just looks like it doesn’t want to exist.
But then, not to be outdone, the film switches into high-gear late on for a climax that is wholly at-odds with its posturing for self-seriousness. It decides it must give us at least one big ol’ Schwarzenegger action scene, in the form of an admittedly impressive car chase that nonetheless sits at odds with the film for finally seeing Ayer having a little fun with the material. At the least, its giddy thrills find themselves more digestibly bad than the film’s grim sour-puss attitude toward just about everything holy. At the end of the loopy The Last Stand, this silly chase might have worked (although Kim Jee-woon, an infinitely better director than David Ayer, already gave that film a much better climax). Here, in a much more “serious” film, it’s downright idiotic.
And wouldn’t you know, as if striving for some sort of record, it one-ups this late film shift in an absolutely dumbfounding final scene which sees the film changing tones again with about two minutes left. This time we are treated to a scene that seems like the culmination of where Ayer was originally going with all this self-seriousness in the first place, a quasi-thoughtful piece of pensive melancholy meant to make us consider the effects of violence on the people who commit it. All well and good, except the scene forgot that the film before it sucks, and it has the effect of making the film’s closing moments seem like a particularly amusing instance of a film having no idea what it is and sort of just mucking around in any tone that passes by. The scene’s presence after the aforementioned car chase, and more broadly after everything the film had spent all of its energy giving us up until that point, is … almost awe-inspiring in its un-earned ambition. This is an aggressively bad motion picture.