David Ayer has created a film that at its core is at conflict with itself: cops are just like us, but not really. We have bad days; cops have worse ones. We get tuned up at weddings and discuss politics or Game of Thrones; cops reminisce over departed partners and lament fallen victims. Were this simply a story that identifies these differences or rejoices in showing us just how dangerous and often times unpleasant a police officer’s job really is, it wouldn’t be anything more than a redoux of Ayer’s (as writer) Training Day. Instead, it’s one of those rare films that isn’t just entertainment–this is ninety minutes of the best and worst of humanity.
“We’re cops. Everyone wants to kill us.” Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena play Taylor and Zavala, police partners in South Central Los Angeles. Young and cocky, they banter a lot, they’re charming and clever, and they take pride in their work; they’re hotshot cops in an extremely gun-happy precinct. We care about them immediately. Through various methods of recording, lapel cameras, dash cams in the squad car, or Taylor’s own hand-held, we see virtually everything that happens on the pair’s watch–which gets plenty intense–but it’s during the interludes off the job that show the partners interacting candidly with each other or Taylor processing what he’s seen (it’s his story, after all) that we really come to know and care about these men. Who they are is almost more interesting than what they do, but among the drugs, the guns, the assaults, and everything else, what they do drives the film. We get a clear sense from the very beginning (as suggested by the title) that this story will not end well, the only question is when and where.
“Watch your six.” Almost as important as the events themselves is the way they’re shot, technically. Taylor’s cameras record much of the activity, but he’s not the only one filming; the street gangs and later the cartel also film and are filmed. Seeing the shots through constantly changing methods and perspectives provides a chaotic and somewhat reality-based feel, but it also speaks to the bigger, cultural issue of broadcasting everything, no matter how alarming, no matter how personal. A makeshift street gang early on films their attack on a rival house but nearly turn on each other over minor disagreements in the car on the way over–caught on film. One of the most sobering segments show two police colleagues, one male, one female, in what can only be described as the very worst on-the-job outcomes possible–all caught on Taylor’s lapel camera.
Reality television has become a nationwide obsession, but are we ready for this much reality? It’s heavy. As these officers are never really out of harm’s way, they must constantly be expecting the next assault even before they finish investigating the most current (at a crime scene one tells his rookie partner, “Stand over there and make sure no one shoots us,” simply so they can get a better look at a vehicle used in a drive-by). They protect us, but they have to protect each other, too, and this is really what the film is about.
So watch your Kardashians, sleep tight, and thank a cop and his partner. Their jobs are harder than you’ll ever know.