David Ayer burst onto the movie scene in 2001 when he wrote two of that year’s major hits: The Fast and the Furious, which has spawned 4 sequels (and counting), and the gritty Training Day, for which Denzel Washington won the Best Actor Oscar. Ayer grew up in the South Central area of Los Angeles where both movies were set, the most active patrol area for cops in L.A., and likely in the nation. A policeman may draw his weapon more times in South Central in a week than an officer in another area would draw it in their career. While Training Day was a hit movie, it’s considered by cops to be one of the least accurate depictions of their lives and work ever made. In his new movie, End Of Watch, Ayer has made up for Training Day with one of the most accurate and compelling films ever made about patrol cops on the streets.
The movie sets its tone from the opening frame. A voice-over narration states “I am the police. And I am here to arrest you. You have broken the law. I did not write the law. I may even disagree with the law. But I will enforce it…” This is spoken by Jake Gyllenhaal in a matter-of-fact voice as a dash cam records a high-speed chase through the L.A. streets. The chase ends when the patrol car P.I.T.s (pursuit intervention technique) the fleeing car so it crashes into a fence. The car’s two occupants come out with automatic weapons blazing. “I bleed, I think, I love,” the narration continues as the gunmen are cut down by the carefully-aimed fire of the two pursuing officers. “And although I am but one man, I have thousands of brothers and sisters who are the same as me. They will lay down their lives for me, and I them.” Welcome to their world.
The two officers, Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena), return to patrol after an investigation of the shooting clears them of any wrongdoing. As part of a class he’s taking in movie production, Taylor carries a digital video camera to record his day. The camera irks Officer Van Hauser (David Harbour) who complains to the patrol sergeant (Frank Grillo), but that doesn’t stop Taylor’s filming his days.
Taylor and Zavala patrol the roughest neighborhoods, where a complaint about mail service ends up with Zavala in a knock-down, drag-out fight, and a noisy party call leads to a confrontation between Taylor and a gangbanger known as Big Evil (Maurice Compte). One night they’re the first on the scene of a house fire and run inside not once but twice to find three small children whom they bring safety to their crying mother. Another day they find a horrible incident of child abuse.
They have their off-duty lives as well. Zavala and his wife Gabby (Natalie Martinez) are expecting their first child. The single Taylor has been dating extensively, but now he thinks he might have found his special woman in Janet (Anna Kendrick). (When he tells Zavala about Janet, his partner’s first question is if he “ran” her – checked her record.) These two men interact on and off the job with constant needling and teasing, but it is based in a partnership that’s as deep as the closest family. As the opening narration states, they would die for each other.
When they pull over a truck they’ve watched pick up a large pot at Big Evil’s house, Zavala gets a gun thrust into his face by the driver. The driver’s quickly disarmed and cuffed, and Taylor and Zavala find drugs and money hidden in the pot, as well as a lead on another location. When they check out that address, they step into the middle of a federal investigation into the Mexican cartels. The cartels think nothing of killing anyone who gets in their way and are moving into the Los Angeles area for drug distribution as well as human trafficking. An ICE agent tells the officers they need to back off, that they do not want the cartel coming after them. But a subsequent, seemingly innocuous call puts Taylor and Zavala in the crosshairs of the cartel’s sight.
Both Gyllenhaal and Pena give flawless performances that transcend the stereotypes. In preparation for their roles, the actors rode along with the LAPD for several weeks, studying officers as they went about their work, and they bring that experience to the screen. The details are right, even down to handling sunglasses. There are times of boyish pranks and of sardonic humor, mixed in with the intensity of their patrols. These characters are fully-realized people that you come to care about deeply.
Gyllenhaal and Pena are matched in their performances by Kendrick and Martinez. As with the men, showy acting flourishes are jettisoned in favor of realism. Kendrick does have a wonderful speech where Janet “borrows” Taylor’s camera and records a message for him, though it’s done with maturity. The promise she showed in Up In The Air is bearing results.
There is a high level of violence, which is a fact of life in South Central. This is the region of drive-by shootings and of gangs preying on each other without a thought for anyone who might get caught in the crossfire. It does portray automatic weapons properly – a lot of noise and power, but impossible to aim when on full auto. As the writer and director, Ayer draws the audience into this world. He shoots the film mostly with hand-held cameras, and also blends in the footage that Taylor shoots, forcing the audience to experience patrol from a point-of-view perspective. Ayer has crafted a tour de force story that feels like cinema verite.
When it comes to patrol cops, they’ve mostly been relegated to television series, while movies concentrate on detectives. On the small screen, you’ve either had the stiffness of the old Adam 12 series, or the over-the-top fantasy of T.J. Hooker. End Of Watch corrects that oversight. It’s a powerful, poignant, and thrilling depiction of police work that gives the audience an appreciation for those who have sworn to protect and serve the public.