Two police officers patrol a particularly high crime section of Los Angeles in End of Watch, a nicely acted, smartly written cop drama.
There’s a bit of a gimmick here, one the movie doesn’t strictly follow but mostly uses to tell its story: video cameras. Officer Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) is filming, perhaps for some sort of film class he’s taking although the film and the movie unfold over the course of a year or maybe a couple of years. We see the footage he films with a hand-held camera and with pocket cameras he pins on his chest and on the chest of his partner Officer Mike Zavala (Michael Peña). We also see footage shot by various criminals and, as in the movie’s opening scene, footage shot by the dashboard camera of the cop car. It gives the characters an excuse for moments of exposition and it gives the sense of things as happening in a kind of present tense “now.”
In that opening footage, Taylor and Zavala chase down a car whose inhabitants, after the car crashes, come out shooting. A few months later, the duo have been cleared of wrongdoing from the shooting and are back on the beat. They have a bit more swagger in their walks, something that fellow officers Orozco (America Ferrera) and Davis (Cody Horn) — tough girl cops — tease them for. The bitter Officer Van Hauser (David Harbour) — constantly annoyed with his rookie partner — rains cynicism on them about their untroubled glee with their jobs.
A good chunk of the movie is Taylor and Zavala, driving around and chit chatting — about Zavala’s wife Gabby (Natalie Martinez), about Taylor’s girlfriend Janet (Anna Kendrick) — and then answering calls, some of which turn violent, some of which are disturbing, all of which seem to include some moment where violence is threatened, often indirectly.
Though often playing the role of heroes, Taylor and Zavala don’t think of themselves as heroes. They like their work, they often go above and beyond but they don’t take themselves too seriously. They don’t overtly act out over the stresses of their job but it does wear on them. They feel like real people or at least tolerable approximations of real people, which is rare for a police officer in this kind of movie. Usually, they are mustach-twirlingly evil or halo-wearing saints. Here, the characters feel kind of nuanced and genuine with dialogue that feels authentic to two guys who, thrown together in a high stress job that also features long stretches of boredom, are exceptionally close. Wait a minute, is this really a movie? Have I somehow stumbled into a big-screen preview of the next season of Southland?
I mean it as high praise when I say that End of Watch reminded me of very good television, particularly of Southland, a series that (in the episodes I’ve seen, admittedly not the whole series to date) strips out a lot of the TV cop-show melodrama and presents the people (at least, if not always the situations) in a way that feels more life-like than say the officers of The Closer or Rizzoli and Isles (two other TNT shows which I happen to like but don’t have nearly the messy-reality feel to them). It might stretch believability to have two police officers get tangled up in so many strange situations but the small moments, the relationship between the men — this aspect of the movie is always believable. And so it is also enjoyable. You get the sense that you’re eavesdropping on private chatter, which is one of the best things a movie can do to pull you in.
I liked End of Watch so much that I wish it was a TV show and we had more time, 13 episodes or more, to get to know these men and the community they policed. Gyllenhaal and Peña (who will hopefully finally get his big breakthrough moment from this) demonstrate that there is a way to bring that small screen character development to a big screen drama. A-
Rated R for strong violence, some disturbing images, pervasive language including sexual references and some drug use. Written and directed by David Ayer, End of Watch is an hour and 39 minutes long and is distributed by Open Road Films.