IoS film review 2: Gambit End of Watch

Con caper that is guaranteed to leave you feeling truly conned

Sometimes, films just go wrong. Gambit, for example, is a lightweight con-man caper with a star-studded cast and a screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen, so it sounds as if should be a fun night out. It isn't. From the opening scenes – which have been cut to confetti in the editing suite and then sticky-taped together with yards of voiceover – it's obvious not only that the film isn't working, but that the people behind it knew it wasn't working. What's particularly sad is that the project, nominally a remake of a Michael Caine/Shirley MacLaine vehicle from the Swinging Sixties, has been in development for 14 years.

Its fundamental problem is that the crimes in caper movies have to be mazes of twists and bluffs and last-minute improvisations, whereas in Gambit the plan is back-of-an-envelope simple. Colin Firth stars as a stuffy art expert who gets his friend Tom Courtenay to forge a Monet, and then pays a backwoods Texan cowgirl, Cameron Diaz, to flog the painting to his boss, a nasty media mogul played by Alan Rickman. Complications? Well, Firth gets in a tizzy about the minibar tab in Diaz's London hotel suite, but otherwise there aren't any setbacks to speak of, which means that the film can barely limp to the 90-minute mark.

The pace is agonisingly slow, and the jokes keep hanging around well after they've stopped being funny – not that they were side-splitting in the first place. Most of the comedy comprises Firth repeating the word "nudist" and getting punched on the nose, Rickman growling at his subordinates, a group of Japanese businessmen doing a wacky Japanese businessmen act, and Diaz hollering, "Your whole cockamamie scheme just went blooey!" Of course, we don't know how much of the Coens' script made it to the final cut, but if they wrote even a fraction of what we see on screen, they must have been having an off day.

Worst of all, the film's central half-hour has nothing to do with the main Monet escapade, which makes it irrelevant to the half-hours that precede it and follow it. Some of this irrelevance involves Firth blundering around The Savoy with no trousers on, which might appeal to anyone who still gets weak at the knees at the memory of Mr Darcy. Everyone else will leave this con-man movie feeling that they're the ones who have been conned.

David Ayer is best known for his Training Day screenplay, so it can't have been too much of a stretch for him to write and direct End of Watch, another punchy police procedural in which two cool cops cruise around South Central Los Angeles. The difference here is that Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena aren't corrupt, relatively speaking. They may enjoy the odd punch‑up with some of the low lifes they encounter on their poverty-stricken patch, but essentially they're tireless, fearless young partners, devoted to the job and to each other.

The other difference is that End of Watch uses "found footage"; ie, like Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity, it professes to be filmed by the characters' own cameras. The conceit is that Gyllenhaal is recording his day-to-day life for a college course, but Ayer doesn't stick with this faux-documentary gimmick, nor does he make any interesting use of it, so I'd assume it's there principally to justify the film's lack of plot. End of Watch isn't about cracking a specific case; it's about riding along with two wisecracking buddies for a year or so, with less emphasis on the nerve-pummelling shoot-outs and chase sequences than on the pranks they play on their colleagues, and on Gyllenhaal's romance with an underused Anna Kendrick. The heroes' blokey chemistry ensures that End of Watch isn't hard to watch, but it ends up steering its squad car between two stools – with neither the authenticity of a genuine documentary nor the narrative drive of a brazenly fictional thriller.

Critic's choice

In Michael Haneke's Amour, the Austrian maestro offers a tender but devastating picture of the sorrows of old age and mortality. For more rugged tastes, follow that camel! David Lean's peerless Lawrence of Arabia returns in the form of a restored director's cut.