End of Watch is the third in a string of look-at-me-I’m-so-gritty dramas about Los Angeles cops directed by David Ayer. This one is different, partly because it’s shot in a found-footage style but mostly because it’s actually somewhat enjoyable, thanks mostly to the quality of its lead actors.
The film’s action takes place over several months and is narrated by Officer Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal), an LAPD beat cop who’s taking a filmmaking class and documenting his work as he patrols the city’s meanest streets with partner and best friend Mike Zavala (Michael Peña). The guys are cowboys who go toe to toe with hardcore gangstas and run into a burning building to save children without waiting for the fire department to show up. The mere fact that they’re filming themselves is evidence of their recklessness — a fellow cop points out early on that if anything goes wrong, the video can always be subpoenaed. (Taylor’s response: “It’s called the erase button!”) And things do go wrong. A couple of routine calls lead Taylor and Zavala to a huge cache of money, drugs, and guns belonging to the Sinaloa drug cartel, and as a result, some Latino gangbangers are assigned to kill them.
The found-footage look of the film is little more than a gimmick, something to make the movie feel different from all the other cop dramas. Much of the film is in fact shot from angles that neither the cops nor the gangstas (who are filming themselves, too) could get. Underneath its handheld trappings, this is just another routine buddy-cop flick –– and a mushy one at that. Ayer way oversells the angle that these guys love each other like brothers.
However, the first-person viewpoint does serve one important purpose, which is to make the actors feel freer and encourage them to ad-lib. The resulting looseness and spontaneity is a quality sorely missing from Ayer’s previous films Harsh Times and Street Kings. It gives us some good comic business like some unexpectedly explicit sex tips from Zavala’s longtime wife (Natalie Martinez) to Taylor’s new wife (Anna Kendrick).
Even better stuff comes from the banter between Taylor and Zavala. The two actors develop an effortless rapport and make you believe in the friendship between these partners, born of long hours in the car discussing women, coffee, the Dodgers, departmental politics, and everything else. Gyllenhaal is the headliner, but it’s Peña who gets most of the best lines, including a terrifically funny anecdote at the end about being trapped in his wife’s parents’ bedroom. Peña’s comic skills (also seen to good effect in Observe & Report and 30 Minutes or Less) bring major laughs to moments like Zavala’s awestruck whisper at seeing the bad guys’ gold-plated Kalashnikov (“Liberace’s AK!”) or an exchange in which Taylor and Zavala good-naturedly tease each other about the differing social lives of Anglos and Latinos. More than its shootouts and chases, these relaxed scenes are what give End of Watch the emotional truth that it’s aiming for.
End of Watch
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña. Written and directed by David Ayer. Rated R.