Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena give the performances of their careers in David Ayer’s latest police thriller, “End of Watch.”
Ayers has made a living in Hollywood on writing about the Los Angeles Police Department. For the most part, Ayers has focused on the more seedy side of police work in hits like “Training Day,” “Dark Blue,” “Harsh Times” and “Street Kings” — all of which involve cops surrounded by corruption (some who are even bad cops themselves) who decide to one day stand up and make a difference. In “End of Watch,” Ayers takes a different approach, focusing on two beat cops who are undoubtedly heroes, laying their lives on the line day in and day out for the citizens of their city. The kind of guys who live by a code and stand by it.
At the heart of Ayers’ drama is a buddy cop movie, but it’s nothing like the normal films that fill that category — this is no “Beverly Hills Cop.” “End of Watch” stars Gyllenhaal and Pena as Officers Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala — two young cops teaming up in one of the worst neighborhoods in L.A.
It’s the actors’ performances that makes “End of Watch” rise above the genre’s conventions. The realistic, improv-like, dialogue-filled scenes between the intense shootouts and car chases add a real weight to the movie. By the end of this roller-coaster ride of a film, the audience is so invested in the characters that they feel like old friends. Every emotional moment will tear you apart and every comical exchange between the partners will bring a smile to your face.
After seeing his performance in this movie, hopefully, Hollywood will stand up and take notice of Pena, who seems perpetually to be placed in background and secondary roles. Given half a chance, Pena could become Hollywood’s next big thing.
Brian and Mike attract the attention of a Mexican cartel after making a couple big-time busts in their neighborhood. What should have been career-making arrests for the officers turns out to be more of a wrong-place, wrong-time situation, as getting on the cartel’s radar isn’t something you want to do. Things quickly become heated for the officers, as their beat becomes a war zone.
In between the officers’ heroics, the audience gets a glimpse at their home lives, and how they deal with the traumatic things they see while on patrol. Behind every great man is an even greater woman, as they say. Brian has Janet (Anna Kendrick) — possibly “the one” — and Mike has Gabby (Natalie Martinez) — his wife and high school sweetheart.
The only real blemish on the near-perfect “End of Watch” is Ayers’ decision to attempt to make a found footage cop movie. The footage, which at times adds some unique shots and a sense of action to the film, generally — like in the case of most found-footage films — just detracts from what is happening on the screen. I’ll buy that Brian is recording his job to make a documentary for his film class, but how realistic is it that the gang members the officers are after also have a penchant for filmmaking? I know that criminals aren’t the smartest people in the world, but would they carry a camera around with them for a drive-by shooting, collecting potential evidence for cops?
Thankfully, Ayers had the foresight to know that he couldn’t pull off everything he wanted with handheld shaky cams, mixing in traditional cameras and shots throughout the movie.