“You’ve broken the law and I’m here to arrest you. I’m fate with a badge and a gun. Protecting the prey from the predators, the good from the bad. We are the police,” LAPD officer Brian Taylor says in the opening scene of “The Watch,” from writer-director David Ayer.
These may sound like the words of a cop character from one of the millions of cop movies and TV series now available but, as it turns out, he’s just as real as you and me. Or would be if you let him.
In “End of Watch,” Ayer, he who brought us one of the best dirty cop movies ever with “Training Day,” a man who writes from experience, having lived all the realities he so faithfully paints, manages to go beyond the buddy-cop formula / cliché he resorts to in order to offer us another slice in the life of the most renowned police department in the US.
Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña) are longtime partners. Far from being heroes – or even feeling like heroes when their actions speak for themselves and would qualify them as such – or villains, they are just two cogs in the impressive machine that is the LAPD.
Two boys in blue, they operate by the rules, which they only occasionally fudge out of a sense of machismo that one might assume comes with the illusion of power, and firmly believe in their mission and, as such, in its success.
Shot entirely with handheld cameras, “End of Watch” may seem, at first sight, a kind of pro-LAPD propaganda movie or, at best, a formulaic buddy-cop instance of filmmaking, but it strives and actually succeeds to be so much more than that.
The found footage technique is a gimmick that’s long gone into overkill, but it works perfectly here. Taylor is an ex-Marine with intellectual pretensions (to match his winning smile and baby blue eyes), who’s taking a film class on the side.
He’s working on a “project” for the class (which seems to last about one year but it’s hard to make out with clarity the chronology of the events), and this allows him to set up cameras in various locations (on the dashboard of his black-and-white, on his and his partner’s clothes) to capture everything.
Luckily, the bad guys share his passion for amateur filmmaking and would never put their camera down, not even when they set out for a good ol’ classic shootout of rival gangbangers.
When Taylor and Z are assigned to one of the roughest neighborhoods in South Central LA and will, out of (misplaced, some might argue) overzealousness stumble across a macabre finding that makes them marks for the Mexican drug cartel, the clash of these two forces will be so impressive that it will keep you on the edge of your seat for the entire duration of the film.
In the process, children will be saved from burning houses or be found taped in closets, shootouts will take place, and every new occurrence will show viewers the exact ways in which man has forgotten his humanity. Without a doubt, it’s a gruesome world out there.
David Ayer infuses its latest project with a sense of realness that is both shocking and touching. Set against the background of the African American – Mexican turf war and the ongoing good vs. bad war, is the story of two brothers who almost naively believe good will prevail.
Laden with grisly but not gratuitous violence, “End of Watch” isn’t so much a narrative as it’s a series of tag-along rides meant to show us how character is defined through actions, not words.
Taylor and Zavala might come across as childish and mean at times, but who isn’t? Aren’t we all like that every once in a while, if the occasion permits? All the same, aren’t we brave or reckless or funny just like them?
The villains, on the other hand, the Mexican and African American gangbangers, aren’t as human or easily relatable. Frightening in everything that they do, they’re painted more like demons than real human beings, with the purpose, we believe, to bring out the best and worst in our heroes.
La La (Yahira Garcia), Big Evil (Maurice Compte) and Demon (Richard Cabral) particularly stand out, especially in the third act of the film, when their desire to mark their turf will precipitate events towards a mind-blowing conclusion.
Other outstanding supporting performances come from America Ferrera and Cody Horn, as two tough female cops, testimony that this dangerous minefield that is LAPD’s activity isn’t exclusive to men.
Natalie Martinez and Anna Kendrick are the two officers’ love interests, while Frank Grillo provides plenty of balance in this chaotic universe as Sarge.
“End of Watch” is a brilliant piece of filmmaking with extremely original dialog, if a bit wanting on plot, understood in the most conventional way (replaced here by a string of apparently unrelated occurrences).
The entire film relies solely on the relationship between Taylor and Zavala, with the two leads having such good chemistry that it’s almost impossible not to suspend all disbelief within minutes into the film.
It does not aim to offer an answer to anything (because it never asks the question but, if it did, that would be, much like in “Hurt Locker,” “is this war really worth waging?”), but only to show exhibit A: friendship, a brotherhood.
“End of Watch” runs 109 minutes, and is Rated R for strong violence, some disturbing images, pervasive language and some drug use. It opened in the US on September 21, is now running in the UK, Poland and Hong Kong, and will conclude its run in Germany on December 20.
A red band trailer is available here, but *please note that discretion is heavily recommended when watching it.
Tense, fast-paced, raw, relentless and extremely realistic, “End of Watch” marks another superb accomplishment for David Ayer, with gorgeous cinematography by Roman Vasyanov. Gyllenhaal and Peña give the most nuanced, strongest performances of their career.
If viewers weren’t so engaged in the witty banter between the two protagonists and their amazing rapport, they might notice the one-dimensionality of the villains and hold it against the movie. In the end, even that serves a purpose.
Coming to breathe new life into a spent genre, “End of Watch” is honest and brutal (but not all the less touching for it) in its portrayal of a year (or so) in the lives of two LAPD cops. It does not preach and it does not glamorize, but merely shows us how character is defined through actions. A must see by all means.