With Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Peña, Anna Kendrick, Natalie Martinez, America Ferrera. Written and directed by David Ayer. Rated R for strong violence, some disturbing images, pervasive language including sexual references, and some drug use. 109 minutes.
What’s most important in a movie? Is it originality, or is it a story well-told? Originality is a good thing because watching a story where you can predict everything that will happen can be a mind-numbingly dull experience. However, when reduced to the basic elements, it is a rare movie that is truly original. No one will accuse END OF WATCH of breaking new ground in telling its story of two uniformed cops in Los Angeles, and yet writer/director David Ayer gives his actors enough to do to make for an engaging movie.
We follow Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña) as they patrol South Central Los Angeles. They’re good cops. Sometimes they bend the rules, but they’re neither corrupt nor are they abusive. They’re two guys who want to do a good job and make a difference. Using a mixture of filming techniques, Ayer lets us follow them on patrol and off-duty, as they engage with everything from noisy parties to drug dealers to a house filled with dead bodies.
Gyllenhaal and Peña have an easy rapport. We see this in the way they needle each other and the affection they have for each other off duty. These are two cops who respect each other professionally and have become friends in the process. It’s nothing we haven’t seen in countless other cop shows and movies, but the Anglo/Hispanic rapport here seems fresh because of the enthusiasm the two actors bring to their roles.
There is a plot of sorts but the real story is about Taylor and Zavala doing their jobs. As they show up at various crime scenes they intersect with the maneuverings of a South American drug cartel that has moved operations into Los Angeles. When, inadvertently, the cops uncover a major hideout of the cartel they become marked for death. At that point it’s not clear where the story is going. Is it simply an episodic recounting of the lives of two cops, or is there going to be a dramatic showdown?
Ayer is a filmmaker who clearly has an affinity to the lives of those who enforce the law, having worked on such scripts as “Training Day,” “S.W.A.T.” and “Dark Blue” and directed “Harsh Times” and “Street Kings.” In an opening voiceover, he sums up the life of a cop: Taylor tells us that he may not like the law but it is his job to enforce it and he will do so. Ayer clearly likes the tension between the fact that Taylor and Zavala are normal guys who worry about their wives, girlfriends, children, etc., and yet also have a special role to carry out which includes the use of deadly force.
By the end of “End Of Watch,” we’re left with much the same feeling. We may not like the cop who pulls us over for a broken tail light or going over the speed limit, but these are guys who are risking their lives doing jobs that need doing… things most of us wouldn’t want to do ourselves. Unlike the super-cops in an action movie, these are guys like us. It’s telling that the movie ends not with a shootout or its aftermath, but two cops talking about a hilarious dating mishap (much the same way Dennis Hopper ended his 1988 cop drama “Colors”). If you leave the theater seeing police officers not as action heroes or people trying to bust your chops for no reason but as good men and women doing one of the toughest jobs there is, Ayer will have succeeded.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide will be released in January 2013. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.