The next time you find yourself sitting at home alone on a random weekday evening, flip on your cable provider’s guide and count the number of cop-related programs you have to choose from. My guess is that number will be somewhere around 338 options, most of them pertaining to the Law & Order universe. As a society, we are obsessed with cops and police procedurals seem to dominate the TV landscape. But despite our preoccupation with this particular field, Hollywood hasn’t done a particularly great job of late when it comes to cinematizing the police officer experience. End of Watch, then, stands as a reminder of how good a mainstream cop movie can be.
Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena) have been inseparable since the academy and have now become patrol partners in one of the more dangerous divisions of the LAPD. A film student in his downtime, Taylor uses lapel cameras to capture footage for his documentary project, a lens through which the majority of the film is told. After a high speed chase turns into a shootout, the pair become local celebrities, a status that leads to the inflation of their already large egos. But before long, Taylor and Zavala get themselves involved in a case way above their pay grades, making them a prime target for a drug cartel.
David Ayer is no stranger to the cop film, having written Training Day, Dark Blue, and SWAT and directed Street Kings. For my money Training Day is the preeminent cop drama of the decade and Street Kings is seriously underrated in spite of Keanu Reeves’ involvement. (Dark Blue and SWAT are fairly awful but that’s beside the point.) His familiarity with the subject, however, was part of the reason I couldn’t muster up much anticipation for End of Watch. Everything about it, from the cinematography that looked exactly like Dark Blue, to the tone that seemed too close to Training Day, right on down to Gyllenhaal’s character who looked like a carbon copy of his Marine in Jarhead (a movie I loathe) seemed entirely too familiar and rehashed. How many times can one director go back to the same material and draw out something new?
Somewhat surprisingly, End of Watch turns out to be the fresh and significant entry into the genre that I didn’t think it would be and that the genre itself needed so badly. It is an effective, efficient, and at times thrilling film that wastes little time and somehow makes two dudes driving around in a car seem thoroughly interesting. Ayer uses the shaky handheld camera effect quite well, a rare example of how this technique can truly be used to play up a film’s realism. More importantly, though, he doesn’t rely on the camera effect to become a crutch or a gimmick to build tension. The action and drama would work without the shaky approach and are only enhanced a bit by the camera technique. And unlike a found footage film, Ayer doesn’t make any attempt to shoehorn the gimmick into situations where it doesn’t fit or create dumb reasons for the camera to always be there and always be in the perfect position to catch the right shot. When there’s a reason for the shot selection to be through the lens of a camera somewhere within the story, it is, but when there’s not, he doesn’t force it in, which I greatly appreciate.
End of Watch truly excels, however, because of the strength of its leads and their tremendous chemistry. To be perfectly honest, I’ve never been a fan of Gyllenhaal and I almost always find him somewhat off-putting. I guess I just don’t find him likeable or relatable and many of his career choices play into that. He is giving me reason to change, though, given his quality turn in last year’s Source Code and the work he puts in here. Taylor is an everyman and Gyllenhaal brings that to life beautifully at almost every turn. Pena does much of the same, creating a clear equality between the two that you don’t always get in a buddy-buddy relationship like this. They work together so well that despite a handful of the sort of great action sequences that I am prone to fall in love with, the best parts of End of Watch are often the exchanges between Taylor and Zavala as they cruise around their beat. It’s an advanced course in what the relationship should look like between partners of this nature.
There are a few dips in the momentum in the second act and I felt like the wedding scene could have been cut down significantly. The counter to that would be that this scene brings the humanity of the characters home for the audience but I would contend that by this point I was completely absorbed in the realism and didn’t need a lengthy look at life outside of the precinct. But for the most part, End of Watch displays nearly unending focus on the things that really matter between Taylor and Zavala, to the point that, with the exception of Anna Kendrick (as Taylor’s new girlfriend), most of the supporting actors are asked to do next to nothing. The approach works very well, though, and End of Watch builds impressively for a dramatic, pulse-pounding finale and at the end of the day, it very well might be the best straight cop movie since Training Day.