Police officers don’t often get the same recognition as soldiers. It’s probably because soldiers are equated with selfless sacrifice in foreign conflicts, while cops are often thought of as those pesky local stooges that write us traffic tickets just to fill their monthly quotas. But End of Watch, a hardcore police drama that often watches like direct cinema crossbred with a first-person-shooter, shows us there are places—right here, in this country—where our police offers are indeed at war. And the friendship that grows between a cop and his partner is none too different from that which might foster between two G.I.s fighting side-by-side on some distant battlefield.
The heart of End Of Watch flows with the blood of these brothers-in-arms. The two in question are officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena), two patrolmen who roam around South Central, Los Angeles hunting down gangsters and drug dealers with Serpico-like zeal. They should probably just stick to writing tickets (that is there job, after all), but they are as heedless as they are heroic, and the movie suggests that you can’t be a hero in uniform without some semblance of daredevil impetuousness. As brave as they are, their meddling gets them in hot water with a Mexican cartel that’s flooding Hispanic neighborhoods with narcotics and murderous thugs.
Shot in a style that masquerades as realism, the film makes use of handheld camcorders, micro-lenses pinned to the officers’ chests, and hood and dash mounted surveillance monitors that can follow the two leads as they pursue the city’s toughest dealers and gun-runners. The reason for all the equipment—Gyllenhaal’s Taylor is making a movie for his law school class—feels like a contrivance (the movie depicts far more than one semester of cop work). Mostly, though, the cameras are an excuse to shoot the film as if from a cop’s perspective, from the streets, behind the wheel, immersed in the action. At times, it feels like we’re playing a video game—the camera literally following a disembodied hand and gun.
The effect isn’t exactly verisimilitude. In fact, I’m not sure what director David Ayer was actually trying to achieve with the video-game stylistics: maybe a feel for how violence has become so desensitized in our society, by a cascade of media produced representations of it, that gritty police work has lost its horror—or maybe he just thought it looked cool. What the director does nail, unequivocally, is an overwhelming sense of mounting dread. As our heroes close in on an inner-city gang leader called Mr. Evil, we can see the sharks slowly circling around them, even if they don’t realize they’re swimming in dangerous waters.
The film comes to a heart-pounding conclusion as our boys fight for their lives in a neighborhood as friendly to them as a Taliban stronghold might be for a couple of stranded grunts. By that point, the rapport between Gyllenhaal and Pena has grown so familiar, so humorous, so brimming with authentic affection—our concern for them earned so organically—that the tension is almost unbearable. Much of the movie is the two actors talking, joking, spilling about girls and family, teasing each other about their ethnicities in a harmlessly walls-down kind of way. What emerges in not just friendship—it’s brotherhood.
Having spent five months in police training to prepare for their roles, Gyllenhaal and Pena don’t just get the lingo down; they understand the trust essential to any good partnership under fire. I do wish Ayers (who also wrote the screenplay) could have found time to shade in some of the peripheral characters: Taylor’s girlfriend Janet (Anna Kendrick) and Zavala’s pregnant wife Gabby (Natalie Martinez) are as textured as a couple of coloring book outlines. Yet, in the end, it’s the boys that carry the movie. Through them, End Of Watch becomes a police action-drama about more than just taking down gangbangers. It’s about duty, sacrifice, and heartbreak. It does right by our boys in blue—neighborhood soldiers that don’t always get the credit they deserve.