Film Review: End of Watch

TV spots and trailers don't catch the movie's subtleties, which lift it above cop-movie clichés.

Partners Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña) have the easy rapport of old pals whose friendship was forged in the fire of fighting crime in South Central, one of L.A.'s most volatile, crime-ridden neighborhoods. They're not the LAPD stereotype, a pair of angry suburban white guys itching to beat the bejesus out of poor people of color: Zavala is Mexican-American, married since he was 18 and still deeply in love with his pregnant wife, Gabby (Natalie Martinez), whom he's the first to say is smarter than he is—and that's just fine with him. Taylor is white and a serial womanizer, a tough-talking cowboy with a smart answer for everything; he's the guy you're ready to hate, except that he's sufficiently self-aware to admit—to himself and to Mike—that he's had enough of being a hound dog. He wants what Mike has and thinks he might have found it in the smart, grounded Janet (Anna Kendrick).

And Taylor has a project: He's making a movie about his life on the streets, ostensibly as part of a pre-law program, but clearly because he's looking to impose order on the chaos he and Zavala face every time they get in their squad car: abused children, victims of human trafficking, empty-eyed junkies, gangbangers, exploited old people, dead and dying cops who turned the wrong corner, opened the wrong door or let down their guard at the wrong time. His project is End of Watch, a fly-on-the-windshield view of law enforcement at its most unglamorous.

Writer-director David Ayer has an impressive roster of cop movies to his credit, and End of Watch is as good as the best of them, which include Dark Blue (2002, screenplay), Training Day (2001, screenplay) and Harsh Times (2001, screenplay and director). Though Taylor and Zavala are the film's bleeding center, Ayer writes the hell out of supporting parts like precinct Captain Reese (former cop Jaime Fitzsimmons), disillusioned department veteran Van Hauser (David Harbour), street-hardened chica loca LaLa (Yahira Garcia), ill-fated rookie Orozco (America Ferrera), and working-stiff crook Mr. Tre (Cle Stone), who respects anyone who fights a clean fight, regardless of the colors he's wearing.

And while some critics have disparaged the "found-footage" conceit—which encompasses not only Taylor's student film-in-progress, but patrol-car footage, material shot by Taylor's gangbanging dopplegangers and surveillance footage—as yesterday's fad, it's perfectly in keeping with the realities of a world where video oversight is a given and no one's ever far from the nearest peeping camera. Ultimately, Ayer is less interested in technical devices than character, and End of Watch is relentlessly character–driven: Everyone answers to his or her own conception of how people like them—gangbangers, street cops, supportive wives/girlfriends, sundry pawns in the game—should act and pay dearly when their preconceived notions of the roles they were handed diverge from the endless improv of everyday life.