If there is one thing I’ve learned from movies like End of Watch and Training Day, as well as television shows like The Shield, it is to never, ever become a police officer in Los Angeles. Being a cop in L.A. seems akin to being a 2nd lieutenant in the Vietnam War; one’s life expectancy is not very long. Life in South Central is grim, with the neighborhoods so overrun with gang violence that cops can do very little to affect any real change. End of Watch tells the story of two such police officers, and manages to be both epic in scope and intimate in focus. It both honors the buddy cop genre and transcends it.
Told with a documentary-style realism, End of Watch revolves around officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña), veteran partners working the worst parts of South Central. They are both honest cops, each with a profound sense of right and wrong and a desire to do good. Through a series of coincidences they attract the attention of a Mexican drug cartel that puts a bounty on their heads. Soon they find themselves the targets of a particularly nasty gang.
The movie is told in a very unique style; it begins seemingly as a found footage movie, with Gyllenhaal’s character videotaping his typical day for a film class. Rather than use it as a crutch or a gimmick, End of Watch just adds this particular technique to its arsenal. Perspective shifts from Gyllenhaal’s camcorder to the police cruiser video camera, to a more traditional cinematic style. This heightens the realism of the whole movie.
Much of the movie takes place in Taylor and Zavala’s police cruiser as they patrol South Central. Through seemingly banal conversation writer/director David Ayer develops the characters of the two cops in a natural, organic way. Before we realize it we have become deeply invested in these two men. We also get to know them outside the job as they interact with Zavala’s pregnant wife Gabby (Natalie Martinez) and Taylor’s girlfriend Janet (Anna Kendrick). The women are not given short shrift in the screenplay, and they become as dear to us as the two cops. The movie manages to take situations we’ve seen before and completely avoid turning them into cliches.
Though the movie works as a character study, it is also absolutely thrilling. The climax is fraught with tension; it is rare that I watch a movie and don’t have a pretty good idea how it is going to resolve. I realized after the credits that the movie ended exactly as it should have. I cared deeply about these characters, and that is a tribute to the makers of this fine film.