It’s a cop movie, with all that implies. It’s a buddy movie, with one partner being better educated and physically tougher than the other. It’s set in gangland South Central Los Angeles. The script is by David Ayer, screenwriter of corrupt-cop dramas Harsh Times, Dark Blue and Training Day. So yes, there’s a lot in End of Watch that sounds familiar. But mostly, it isn’t.
This time, Ayer concentrates on young, well-adjusted police officers risking their lives in situations of almost unimaginable barbarity. In the rapid-fire opening, a routine traffic stop escalates into a fatal shoot-out. Though they may not realize it, Brian (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike (Michael Pena) are relying on each other to hold onto their humanity. And their dedication to the “the thin blue line” is unconditional, despite being the objects of the irrational hostility of an older officer (David Harbour).
Ayer uses handheld cameras to get right inside the action, and inside the squad car, where his skill with dialogue is as impressive as the gritty realism of the partners’ beat (this is territory Ayer knows well—he grew up in South Central—and it shows). Most of the action is viewed through HD cameras worn on their chests: Brian is filming his watch for a class he’s taking in pre-law. The gangs, too, are filming themselves, exalting in the bravura of their depravity, and occasionally the proceedings are shown from the POV of surveillance footage from a federal agency (to which attention should be paid during the climax).
What this adds to the film is how it brings the audience alongside for every scarifying encounter, whether the partners are entering a derelict home to check on an elderly resident, or pulling over a possibly homicidal crack dealer (a sequence involving child abuse is especially dreadful). Meanwhile, we get to know these ordinary heroes: Brian, making a concerted effort to manage his aggression, is excited by a new relationship with a classmate, while Mike, a Mexican-American, is just grateful to be living the American dream with his beautiful wife and extended family. Their banter is illuminating, entertaining, razors-edge authentic (the actors spent months on real patrols), and moving: This is a friendship that transcends the job.
Brian and Mike are entangled in an even more dangerous level of crime when they unknowingly bust an upper-level drug dealer in the Mexican cartel. “I didn’t think this shit was over here,” says Mike in appalled astonishment when they see the cartel’s handiwork. Gyllenhaal is even better than he was in Jarhead, and cuddly Pena holds his own. Yet what’s most remarkable is how the script includes women; the partners often cross paths with two patrolwomen who may be as good as they are (America Ferrera and model Cody Horn, striking in her brief scenes as the most hardened beat cop). Brian’s girlfriend (Anna Kendrick) is allowed to become a real person, while a Latino hit-bitch (Daimonique, who makes Noomi Rapace look like a girl scout) shows her leadership abilities even in the depths of drug-crazed, testosterone-fueled violence.
This is Ayers’ first film where his directing is as incisive as his screenwriting, and if you should feel like saluting the men in blue at its end, that salute would be well deserved.