Sleek, uncompromising, and smartly executed, David Ayer’s (Harsh Times) gritty cop drama End of Watch delivers a tightly written (and tightly wound) character-driven crime story wrapped around charismatic performances by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena.
It makes Training Day (also written by Ayer) look like a Sunday picnic, but by all rights End of Watch shouldn’t work worth a damn. It is ostensibly a buddy cop movie built around the over-used found footage conceit, both of which ran out of steam long ago. Ayer wisely dumps the conventions and clichés associated with both, and focuses instead on the nuts and bolts of his two leads.
Gyllenhaal and Pena play Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala, a pair of LAPD beat cops who’ve friends and partners for so long they sometimes resemble an old married couple with their bickering and teasing. The overly ambitious Taylor is working on a film project on the side, and not only carries a camcorder with him on duty, but also places tiny digital cameras on his and Zavala’s uniforms and throughout their patrol car. These — plus the car’s standard dashboard camera — document their activities over the course of about a year, as a series of high-profile busts earn them acclaim within the department but also makes them targets for reprisal from a Mexican drug cartel.
Ayer performs a skillful juggling act with the narrative, finding a way to allow the procedural elements of the story to coexist with the day-to-day character elements. In between the daily routine of responding to calls ranging from banal to life-threatening, we’re exposed to the banter between these two brothers in blue, peeks into their private lives — mainly Zavala’s devotion to his high school-sweetheart wife (Natalie Martinez) and Taylor’s budding romance with a grad student (50/50‘s Anna Kendrick) — and the interaction with their fellow officers (Cody Horn of Magic Mike, America Ferrara, and David Harbour, the latter of whom gets a wonderfully profane monologue about job satisfaction). Throughout, Ayer uses the candid-camera footage approach more as a motif than a strict narrative gimmick, subtly sneaking away from it from time to time and thus avoiding the tedium that usually kills “found footage” movies and keeping End of Watch from devolving into a $10 million episode of Cops.
In lesser hands such a thing gets real tedious real quick; Ayer, however, has a knack for natural-sounding dialogue and story pacing, and knows to step back and give his talented young cast room to manuever. It’s rare that supercops like these come across as so human and real; even more so that such creations cause us to get so emotionally invested in their stories.