There’s an indisputable level of commitment in this Los Angeles cop drama. Writer-director David Ayer, who did the acclaimed script for Training Day, grew up in South Central. And he’s a stickler for detail. End of Watch has the feel of an uncensored reality show as Officer Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Officer Zavala (Michael Peña) work the Newton neighborhood for the LAPD. We see the action through the lenses of hand-held HD cameras operated by police, gang members and assorted surveillance devices. With a camera mounted on his chest, Gyllenhaal shot much of the film himself, since his character is working on a documentarylike film project. Ayer keeps things unnervingly in your face. It’s a dizzying sensation, which drives some audiences nuts. If that sounds like you, end this watch fast.
The plot smacks of day-old TV cop show. Taylor and Zavala are caught between battling drug cartels that make them targets when they seize drug money from a local gang. But Ayer raises the bar with a script that bristles with life. Unlike Denzel Washington’s dirty cop in Training Day, Taylor and Zavala hold their moral balance. Zavala, the family man, is excited when Taylor thinks of settling down with the right girl (a scrappy Anna Kendrick).
Don’t panic. Action is the key here. Gyllenhaal and Peña spent five months doing ride-alongs to cement their bond with gritty authenticity. You hear that a lot from actors. This time it works. Gyllenhaal, beefy and bald for the role, invests Taylor with a core of intelligence as imposing as his brawn. And Peña is just the guy you’d want watching your back.
The pact these guys make in case one of them is paralyzed smacks of tear-jerking, but these actors are too good to wallow in it. End of Watch gives you the savage whoosh of being on a job that can get you killed. Sins of cop clichés can be forgiven when a movie pays honest tribute to police on the line.