Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Zavala (Michael Peña) are two young police officers who patrol the meanest streets of south central Los Angeles. The action unfolds through gripping footage from the handheld HD cameras of the police officers, gang members, surveillance cameras, and citizens caught in the line of fire to create a riveting portrait of the city's most dangerous corners.
Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena) work together. They are buddies. They spend each long day in the front seat of a car riding around a South Central Los Angeles that looks like an urban war zone; battered, scarred and ugly. Much of Brian and Mike’s work is boring, routine, and so they fill the dead time with chat. Their talk has the swagger of the locker room and playing field; heavy with profanity, they tease and poke at each other’s ego. Love, women, marriage are hot topics, but the job at hand stays, for the most part, off limits, probably because to verbalise their feelings means talking about fear. Brian and Mike are LAPD beat cops. They are 'in service’. They don’t think, they act. They love each other the way men always do in movies about combat. For writer/director David Ayer, Brian and Mike are heroes doing a dirty job; they are locked into a 'war’ on drugs where their 'enemy’ is made up of a cast of non-white law-breakers with names like Big Evil and Demon.
End of Watch jumps, jerks, paces and pounds in a way that takes us right inside the mindset of the characters
And right from the start of this gripping cop movie you get the terrible feeling that for Mike and Brian, their lives’ as police are fated to end badly. They don’t seem to understand crime’s deeper motives, but they are moved by its human cost. They don’t stop crime, but regulate it. That’s part of Ayer’s point; these guys might be dedicated and tough, but in a very real sense they don’t really know what they are doing and that kind of 'innocence’ can be fatal.
Ayer, who scripted the excellent and vastly underrated Training Day (directed by Antoine Fuqua, 2001), builds End of Watch around a visual style designed to give us intimate access to Brian and Mike’s day-to-day experience. In the story, Brian, an ex-marine, is studying pre-law and one of his class assignments is to record a 'home-movie’ about his job. He uses lapel cameras – pinned to his and Mike’s uniform – and carries a camcorder everywhere. Ayer, in other words, uses the 'found footage’ idea so popular in horror films over the past decade or so.
Thus, End of Watch jumps, jerks, paces and pounds in a way that takes us right inside the mindset of the characters. The effect is disorienting, exciting and bound to drive some viewers right up the wall. (The camera jerks so much at times that the film ought to have a health warning for those punters prone to motion sickness!)
At first, the film has the ambience of a quasi-documentary. Ayer’s project seems to be simply about giving us the feelings and sensation of being a 'frontline’ cop. We see Mike and Brian perform arrests – many of them brutal encounters. Pride, ego, and competitiveness coat all human encounters here; it doesn’t take long to apprehend why these cops take risks and face all outsiders (the citizenry) with a mix of terror and contempt.
We learn that Mike, the married one, is cautious, with little true moral investment in the job. And we see the influence of professional soldering in Brian’s 'Teflon-coated’ posturing. We see Brian and Mike off the job; we witness Brian’s blooming romance with Janet (Anna Kendrick) whose wholesome smarts make him think twice about serial bachelorhood. Meanwhile, Mike’s wife Gabby (Natalie Martinez) is expecting their first child. (The film, though, is doggedly male-centred; the femme cops and villains exist only in the periphery).
Throughout the writing is smart and Ayer lets the story creep up on you. The film has a casual feel, but in fact the plotting is tight and robust. The 'random’ encounters of the film’s first half detonate into explosive details of action and character as the film develops. Mike and Brian answer a routine call and discover mass murder and kidnapping. It turns out to be a major drug operation with a Mexican cartel as the target. When a special squad detective informs Brian that the Mexicans won’t let this go, Brian replies that the threat is no big deal.
Given the notoriously dark reputation of the LAPD – well earned by all accounts – End of Watch has angered liberal pundits in the U.S., seeing its very premise as an apologia for a reckless style of policing that’s at heart racist. Certainly, Brian and Mike are decent guys (and the film’s cast is a police corruption-free zone) but I don’t think Ayer’s movie is motivated by anything so simple-minded as a 'tribute’ to cops.
Ayer threads an irony here that’s especially welcome in an American cinema that’s become increasingly wary of ambiguity and ambivalence. In a more routine genre exercise, Brian and Mike would set out to 'solve’ the big crime. Instead, here they lose themselves in the comforts of routine and their mateship. End of Watch isn’t so much a film about action, but frustration. It sets out to take the mystical sheen off 'screen cops’ and turn them into working stiffs. It explores the 'outsider’ feeling that many street cops everywhere must feel; the sensation that all they are doing is working the perimeter of a much larger and very sinister story without ever penetrating it in a meaningful way. Or to put it another way, Mike and Brian are that rare thing in American movies: brave losers.