David Ayer is best known for penning the action films U-571, The Fast and the Furious, S.W.A.T. and Training Day. In his latest offering, End of Watch (which he also directed), Ayer mines the familiar territory of the police drama, but turns the genre on its head—delivering a film with heart, humor and pathos in between moments of violence.
The film opens with a car chase through the streets of South Central Los Angeles (which, by the way, Hollywood, officially changed its name to South Los Angeles in 2003). The scene is captured from external and patrol car cameras, giving a real-time documentary feel that persists throughout the movie. The chase ends in a gunfight between suspects and LAPD officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña).
The two officers are cleared in the shooting and are welcomed back to Newton Division, located in one of the toughest, gang-infested neighborhoods in Los Angeles. We get a glimpse of the daily routines of LAPD personnel back at the station, both good and bad. It’s a testosterone-dominant atmosphere, filled with rookies and jaded veterans, where frat-boy antics and pranks are not uncommon, and women cops (played by America Ferrera, Cody Horn) seemingly have to be twice as tough as their male counterparts. But above it all, we see a close-knit community who step into the line of fire every day, trusting their partners to help them make it through each shift to log in another “end of watch” on their daily reports.
At its core, End of Watch is a buddy cop movie between Gyllenhaal and Peña, who are each at their top of their game. The Taylor-Zavala relationship comes across as a natural friendship that’s evolved through countless hours of patrol rides and bonding over the horrific crimes they’ve encountered. Some of the best scenes in the film are quieter ones in the squad car, filled with brotherly banter, humor and poignant discussions about life and death.
The two officers couldn’t be more different: Taylor, from an upper-middle class Midwestern family and former marine, is trying to get into law school while navigating the waters of his first real relationship with Janet (Anna Kendrick). Father-to-be Zavala is a local kid who married his high school sweetheart (Natalie Martinez) and has a huge Mexican family that counts Brian among its members. In return, Taylor’s present at every birthday, wedding and quinceañera, only too happy to put away home-cooked Mexican fare any chance he gets.
We believe these guys are real cops, from the ease in which Gyllenhaal calls in crimes to dispatch to Peña’s rescue-first-think-later performance as their characters run into a burning house to rescue three trapped kids.
Throughout the film, which switches seamlessly from character study to taut thriller, Taylor and Zavala cross paths several times with members of the Sinaloa drug cartel. The brutality is unparalleled, dabbling in human trafficking, drug trades and cold-blooded massacres, and the two local cops don’t know exactly what they’ve uncovered until it’s too late. The final shoot ’em up scene is a little over-the-top, but it exemplifies, Hollywood style, the violence that LAPD personnel are up against every day.
Ayer chooses to capture many scenes through the use of footage from various police car cameras, surveillance videos, hand-held cameras of gang members and other found-footage-feel mediums. For the most part, this technique works, but the one instance where it clearly doesn’t is in the hands of Officer Taylor. He’s taking an elective film class and uses the camera to document everything, even during his shift. It’s a device forced upon viewers who know all too well that filming while on duty is verboten by the LAPD.
Yes, End of Watch is an action film, but it’s also a terrific three-dimensional portrait of police officers’ daily lives and the city for which they’re responsible. Ayer, who grew up in South Central, chose to film real locations and real Angelenos (including current City Councilmember Eric Garcetti and local news reporter Serene Branson) to provide an even greater sense of authenticity. The attention to detail, coupled with the excellent lead and supporting characters, pays off because End of Watch stays with audiences long after the end of the film.
Director: David Ayers
Writer: David Ayers
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Peña, Anna Kendrick, America Ferrera, Natalie Martinez, Frank Grillo
Release Date: Sept. 21, 2012