It is sort of a distressing trend that most police movies recently have featured cops who are rotten to the bone, men use their badge as leverage to steal drugs and money and to shake down young kids just to instill in them the fear of God. Whatever happened to the good old days when a cop’s job was to serve and protect? One of the reasons that David Ayer’s End of Watch is so refreshing is because it moves away from all of that. Here is a movie that not only features the ins and outs of police work but it also allows us to get to know the characters to the degree that we actually care deeply about them.
End of Watch is a movie about two police officers who operate as far inside the limits of their profession as their egos will let them. They are young, full of testosterone and enthusiasm. Occasionally they step over the line to get the job done, but only far enough that it risks their lives and not their jobs. Early in the movie, they run into a burning house to rescue a woman’s children when the fire department is taking too long to respond. By the book, this is a stupid move, but they are given medals for their valor.
The cops are Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña), LAPD street cops who are such close friends that they are almost brothers. In between calls they talk intimately about their lives and their plans. That’s refreshing when you consider that most cops in the movies just talk about cop stuff. What these two have to say sounds like real speech, not boilerplate nonsense. Mike is a married man who is about to be a father. He joined the police department at the urging of his wife Gabby (Natalie Martinez) because it was an easy way to make a good living without a formal education. Brian has a girlfriend Janet (Anna Kendrick) and is dancing around the idea of asking her to be his wife. For most of the movie, he is using a video camera against department policy to film the day to day life of an L.A. cop for a class that he is taking.
Their behavior on the job is often on the level of frat boys, but they take their job with a degree of seriousness. As the movie opens they find themselves being transferred to patrol the dangerous barrio neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles. Most of the crime here involves weapons, drugs and a lot of other activities that surprise them as much as they surprise us. This is an insular world that they don’t really know, even despite the fact that Mike is Hispanic. This is a place with a value system so far from normal morality that after an encounter that reveals a human trafficking operation, a shell-shocked Brian admits that he didn’t even know that this kind of thing was taking place in The United States.
One day they pull over a van driven by a gang banger who is in possession of a bejeweled handgun and an automatic machine gun that appears to be made of solid gold. He is also carrying a pot of beans that contains lots of bundles of cash wrapped in plastic. This case opens up a very unfortunate series of events as Mike and Brian slowly begin to realize that they are in the midst of a viper’s nest of a Mexican Cartel that is operating in this very neighborhood.
Their nosing around gets them noticed by the dealers to the degree that the cartel is in danger of being exposed. What is interesting is that the movie never allows Mike or Brian to completely understand what they are up against. We know things that they don’t, and that makes the drama more intense as the danger closes in. They are so wet behind the ear that they don’t even know how much trouble they are in when they are warned by the Feds and by a helpful street thug.
The third act of the movie is a violent showdown in which they find themselves pinned down in an apartment building by members of the cartel. What elevates this scene is that we know what is at stake and where everyone is in relation to each other during the shootouts. This isn’t just a series of random shootouts with lots of editing. There’s some logic to the action, and it’s exciting
If there is a weakness to the film it is that Brian and Mike never seem to have an ordinary call. All of their encounters lead to a major revelation. It is possible that no two cops in the world ever go through what these two experience in the course of a few days. There are no drunk drivers, no domestic disputes, no routine traffic stops. A few scenes like that may have given the story a bit little more reality.
But that’s a small issue, what we have here is a superior police thriller that is well acted and well thought out. Jake Gyllenhaal is very good in a role that allows him to pull back his usual intensity. Yet, the better performance comes from Michael Peña who gives a wonderful, natural performance. He has been good before in movies like Crash and World Trade Center, but here he’s a real discovery. He and Gyllenhaal, and all of the supporting characters have a lot of good material to work with here. Their characters are developed far more than most movies will allow. If you see this movie consider the very last scene and ask yourself how many action movies would dedicate their time to a scene like that, or even create characters that would be worth it.