Like a knife in the eye, “End of Watch” cuts past the cliches of standard police procedurals, serving instead as a visceral ride-along with two thrill-seeking cops (Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena, both terrific) covertly documenting their beat in South Central L.A. Faux-found-footage approach already feels a little dated, but amplifies the authenticity in what feels like a cross between “Cops” and first-person shooter-style vidgames. Sincerely dedicated “for all that fight evil so we may not know it,” David Ayer’s moving tribute to the men in blue should earn its share of green once word of mouth kicks in.
Opening with a high-speed pursuit shot through the windshield of an LAPD squad car, the pic slams auds into the shoes of officers Brian Taylor (Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Pena), longtime partners sworn to protect and to serve one of the Southland’s most dangerous neighborhoods. After the chase ends in a shooting, the pair is reassigned to a new inner-city zone and advised, “Try not to kill anyone by the end of the week.”
Given Ayer’s past credits on such dirty-cop pics as “Training Day” and “Harsh Times,” one could reasonably assume that these two rule-benders might go rogue when Sarge (Frank Grillo) isn’t looking. Far from it. While the two don’t exactly play things by the book, Ayer presents them as unsung heroes, justifying the power trip they both get from their badges — an attitude echoed via the film’s macho rap soundtrack — by demonstrating in one situation after another how sincerely they intend to be a force for good.
In one scene, running on Red Bull and barely able to keep their eyes open at the end of a long shift, Taylor and Zavala spot a burning house and call in the situation. When their fire-fighting associates fail to arrive in time, Zavala doesn’t hesitate to act, risking his own life to rescue three children from the blaze. As always, Taylor has his back every step of the way.
Such a connection between cops is hardly unique, according to Ayer, epic poet of the LAPD, who sings the department’s feats and failures in film after film. Whether they are teasing one another on the job — so poignantly captured in the final scene — or hanging out with their respective lady friends (Natalie Martinez plays Zavala’s pregnant wife, while Anna Kendrick aces the danger-drawn thrill of Taylor’s latest “badge bunny”), a bond like this goes beyond brotherhood, to the point that either officer would lay down his life for his partner.
Eventually, as the title implies, both will be given precisely that chance. To raise the stakes further, Taylor carries a small handheld HD camera everywhere, also rigging his uniform with a recording device that allows him to surreptitiously document his adventures as a cop. Given the LAPD’s skittishness around cameras after the Rodney King incident, Taylor seems to be begging for trouble.
“You know they’re gonna subpoena that shit if something goes sideways,” a female colleague warns — one of several role-model-making distaff parts through which America Ferrera and Cody Horn demonstrate that, however dangerous, law enforcement isn’t an exclusively male domain. For the sake of the film’s heightened “reality,” however, Ayer has conceived Taylor as an obstinate ex-Marine taking a filmmaking class on the side, and if disobeying the department’s orders by documenting his work is the character’s worst infraction, then perhaps good cops still exist.
At the macro level, “End of Watch” affords the LAPD the respectful portrayal the U.S. military seeks when partnering with Hollywood: Instead of glorifying the individual, the film depicts an honorable and efficient organization of people working together. This is apparent in not only David Harbour’s small but crucial contribution as an all-business cop who doesn’t even bat an eye after sustaining a show-stopping injury on duty, but also Taylor and Zavala’s split-second response to the situation, passing up the arguably justifiable opportunity to kill the sadistic perp on the spot.
With an ear for the vernacular and an eye for intense but unglamorized violence, Ayer depicts the way well-trained professionals boiling over with both adrenaline and ego respond to potentially life-threatening situations, incorporating footage from other cameras, including chilling “top-secret” surveillance video and clips pulled from an iPhone-documented drive-by. Ultimately, the mock-doc device works because Gyllenhaal and Pena so completely reinvent themselves in-character. Instead of wearing the roles like costumes or uniforms, they let the job seep into their skin, a feat without which “End of Watch’s” pseudo-reality never would have worked.