The moments that make End of Watch most effective aren’t the car chases, the fights, or the gun battles, although those are all handled well by writer/director David Ayer, best known for Training Day. It’s the easy chemistry between the film’s charismatic leads, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña, which makes what they face day to day and the danger they encounter all the more immediate and intense.
L.A. beat cops Brian Taylor (Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Peña) are considered “cowboy cops” by the rest of their squad because of the cavalier way they handle their jobs. They’re modern-day gunfighters, patrolling their beat day in and day out in their black-and-white, dealing with everything from routine traffic stops to mothers strung out on crack cocaine and shoot-outs with local gangs. The film shows us episodes from a year in the lives of these two men, both in and out of the squad car. In between the drug busts, the kicking-in of doors, and the high speed pursuits we see Brian find, date, and marry his “perfect match”, Janet (Anna Kendrick), Mike and his wife Gabby have a baby, and the two men fill out reports, prank their squad mates, attend quincineras, and most of all banter back and forth while riding around on patrol in the front seat of their squad car.
Eventually, the duo’s good work gets them attention from a drug cartel who want that good work to stop permanently, and a street gang with a grudge against them proves all too willing to make the cartel happy in the most brutal way possible.
All of this, more or less, is familiar from Ayer, who in addition to Training Day has explored this particular territory in his scripts for Harsh Times (which he also directed), S.W.A.T., and Dark Blue. A couple of things make End of Watch stand out from what he’s done before, as well as from other cop dramas: First, the extensive use handheld cameras, wireless cameras, dashboard-mounted cameras and night-vision cameras to tell the story in a way makes everything feel like it’s within arm’s reach. The shakiness that comes from use of handhelds in particular benefits the film’s presentation and its buildup of tension because the audience is often seeing what Taylor and Peña see, and there’s only so much they can see when they’re chasing perps down narrow alleys or darkened stairwells.
Second, the attention to detail given to Taylor and Peña’s back stories and their relationships to their families, their wives/girlfriends, and to each other, makes you care about these guys and what happens to them. They’re brothers-in-arms with a friendship that keeps them alive when the bullets are flying and entertained and laughing during the quieter times. Most importantly, they’re “good guys” who don’t see themselves as heroes for what they do., That integrity, as well as all the humor that springs from the many in-the-car conversations ranging from dating and marital advice to raunchy sex stories and tips, will win you over as well as help break the tension that slowly builds as the film rolls toward its conclusion.
The film at times feels longer than it is, mainly because the scenes that Taylor and Peña move in and out of occur with the randomness of real, every day life — traffic stop one day, human trafficking den the next. But eventually, you’ll sense a pattern emerge and you’ll feel where things are leading. The power of the film lies in the fact that by then you’re invested; by then you care about these guys and the lives they lead, and you’ll want that gut feeling to be wrong.
Score: 4 out of 5
End of Watch
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Peña, Anna Kendrick, Natalie Martinez, America Ferrera, Frank Grillo, David Harbour. Directed by David Ayer.
Running Time: 109 minutes
Rated R for strong violence, some disturbing images, pervasive language including sexual references, and some drug use.