End of Watch (2012) is a fascinating police drama about two cops whose bond is absolute. Like many cop movies, it centers on the LAPD and two street officers in particular, Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Zavala (Michael Peña). The movie is incredulously set-up as if Taylor is making a documentary with a small camera about his life on the force. The movie then splices “Taylor’s footage” with official police on-board car cameras and, against belief, the recordings of certain criminals, who are apparently making their own slice-of-life documentaries. Regardless of how they came by it, what it adds up to is a tense, jumpy and totally engrossing movie about the real dangers that come with protecting and serving. I usually find the handheld-camera documentary style to be distracting but in End of Watch, it achieves the desired effect of making us feel as if we’re out on patrol with the boys in blue.
Over the course of a few months we follow Taylor and Zavala in and out of danger. Everyday operations turn violent at a moment’s notice and hazard is never far away. The movie is most at home in these episodic, meandering passages. We see Taylor and Zavala engage with one another (they refer to each other almost exclusively and ubiquitously as “bro” or “dude”) and see how they handle themselves in high-stakes situations, in which they find themselves a lot. We have shoot-outs and car chases, and they uncover drug rings and perform rescues.
Taylor and Zavala are good cops; they take their job as their duty and don’t shy away from sticky situations, even if it’s not their situation to get sticky in. Zavala breaks into a burning house to save a family when it would have been safer to wait for the fire department, and Taylor investigates a possible link between crimes when that’s above his pay grade. Most of the time, however, they joke with each other or the other cops on the force (including some played by Frank Grillo, America Ferrera, and Cody Horn) and try to distract themselves from the fact that today could be their last.
This type of movie has been made before and End of Watch’s writer and director, David Ayers, is well-practiced at it, having written Training Day (2001), Harsh Times (2005) and other gritty thrillers. I’m happy not to be able to speak with much authority about its authenticity, but it feels real enough. There’s the usual Hollywood treatment (there are 10,000 officers in the LAPD but all the adventure stuff seems to happen to these two), and it’s hard not to notice that all these regular cops happen to look like Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Peña, America Ferrera and Cody Horn.
All the stuff on the job is hair-raising and the interrelationships on the force and the hierarchies within the departments ring true. Where End of Watch treads on less solid ground is with its introduction of the officers’ personal lives, represented by Zavala’s wife, Gabby (Natalie Martinez), and Taylor’s girlfriend, Janet (Anna Kendrick). Both actresses are appealing, but they exist only to be manipulate the audience’s sympathy, to remind us of what’s at stake when our heroes enter a dangerous situation. Not only is this unnecessary, it distracts from the main crux of the drama.
The movie doesn’t devote the time and energy to their relationships as it does to the one between the two cops, so while Gyllenhaal and Peña are able to create something that becomes real in our minds, the women aren’t given the opportunity. This should be Taylor’s and Zavala’s story completely, so the movie drags when it drifts away from the tour of duty. When tragedy strikes, Ayers must feel as if he’s scored some poignancy by reminding us of the families, but our sadness is almost exclusively for the two cops. That’s the central relationship.
Taylor and Zavala don’t grow much in the time we know them, but that’s OK. The fascinating trick that End of Watch pulls off is that it gives us a look at two people who seem sophomoric or even dangerous (the movie opens with Taylor recklessly and proudly showing his camera all his weapons like a middle school tough guy, and in an early episode, Zavala and a repeat offender who the pair have grown to know, engage in a fistfight to blow off steam). Then it allows us to understand these two without changing them. Their jobs require them to be in harm’s way on a daily basis; these immature antics might be their only way to keep their sanity.