Review: End of Watch


by Justin Jasso

Take a moment and name three films that are based on police. For me, Training Day, The Other Guys and Street Kings came to mind instantaneously. The police genre is one of those genres of films that have been around for so long and really don’t have a ton of new material to tell nor new ways to tell their stories. Fortunately for us, David Ayer (Training Day, Street Kings) brings us a new take on the police film, which is a little less Hollywood than Training Day but definitely as memorable. The script is finely written, the performances are spot on, and the chemistry between the leads is pure joy to watch in Ayer’s new film, End of Watch.

Jake Gyllenhaal, with his skull shaved, and Michael Pena, with a full head of hair, play partners Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala, whose beat is the South Central L.A. night shift. Taylor is taking a film class, so he films everything with his hand cam or with small cameras attached to his and Zavala’s uniforms. Most of what they do is routine: rescuing children from a burning house, investigating a missing persons call, responding to noise complaint. But because South Central is a hive of drugs and gang violence, there’s always an edge of uncertainty. By being too diligent, Brian and Mike attract the wrong sort of attention to go along with medals of valor: a Mexican drug lord who wants them stopped before they can interfere with his distribution plans. Meanwhile, both partners experience life changes. Mike and his wife, Gabby (Natalie Martinez), welcome their first child, and Brian considers marriage to his girlfriend, Janet (Anna Kendrick).

End of Watch is very much a “day in the life” story, detailing the easy conversation that transpires in a squad car between calls and showing the dangers faced by cops even in seemingly unthreatening situations. There are times when the first-person approach works to emphasize intimacy. On other occasions, such as a fire rescue, it shows the confusion and innate danger police go through in certain situations on a routine basis. Eventually, the main plotline kicks in, although we soon realize aspects of it have been present all along. The final thirty minutes are taut and suspenseful and the viewer shouldn’t make the mistake of believing events are going to follow a predetermined cop movie path. End of Watch isn’t afraid of venturing into dark territory or of touching on topics which we, as a populace, may not speak of regularly.

The film’s real power, though, comes through the relationship between Taylor and Zavala and their almost-improvised dialogue. Ayer’s penetrating script takes us deep into the heart and personal lives of a beat cop, making these two far, far richer than the Hollywood stereotypes. It also helps that their chemistry naturally adds a lot of humor and a surprising number of laughs, even though this is hardly a comedy. These are three-dimensional human beings, and we learn to care deeply about them—it’s no wonder the LAPD offered such close cooperation to Ayer in the filming. Beyond this realistic look at what it takes to make it in this job, we really get to know these two and their hopes, dreams and loves. We also get to tag along as Taylor gets involved in a serious romance with Janet (Anna Kendrick) and as Zavala experiences the birth of his first child with wife Gabby (Natalie Martinez). Few cop movies spend as much time developing a believable partnership like this, and it has a strong payoff in the final act.

For those who can handle Ayer’s use of the shaky-cam approach on the big screen, End of Watch is satisfying and emotionally potent. It’s a good, gritty drama of the sort that seems increasingly rare within the thriller genre, where visual excess and the adrenaline/testosterone cocktail have become dominant. End of Watch offers amazing performances, great character relationships and an engaging story which emotionally attaches you to the characters whether you want it to or not. And when all is said and done, you’ll leave the theater knowing that the price of admission and two hours of your time were more than well spent.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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