To Protect and to Serve


Review of “End of Watch”  

They patrol our towns. They watch our streets. They bring criminals to justice. They are police officers, everyday heroes who put their lives on the line so they can protect ours. But, they are equally as determined to protect their comrades as well. To paraphrase Officer Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) from his narration in the opening scene, if you mess with one cop, you mess with all of them, and if you take down one, there are thousands more.

The unity of cops, particularly that of two best friends in the police force, are at the gritty center of David Ayer’s cop drama, “End of Watch.” Presented through handheld camera shots and surveillance footage, the film takes the viewer on as close as a ride-along as they are likely to get. With the trips through South Central Los Angeles and its ruthless crooks and violence-ridden streets, the film provides the feeling of what it’s like to be behind the gun and the wheel of a squad car.

Officers Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena) are dedicated members of the LAPD, and have a friendship that’s so strong that they refer to themselves as brothers. But, what they have seen so far on the job can’t prepare them for what they will discover: a heinous crime involving cartels focused on human and drug trafficking. As the stakes become higher and the events around the crime more gruesome, Taylor and Zavala will do whatever they can to protect their families, their fellow officers and each other.

The work between Gyllenhaal and Pena embodies the film’s overall theme of protecting those close to you. The ability for them to easily work together is essential because whenever their characters are riding together, they are always immersed in either cop talk or trash talk aimed at the other. It’s evident that they are such good friends that they can have fun insulting each other without being offended.

Their deep and funny conversations about family paint them as not just cops, but as husbands and fathers, and depict their off-duty commitments as just as important as their on-duty commitments. Their verbal exchanges are grounded in the trust and friendship they have for each other.

The acting from the whole cast comes off as very naturalistic with its intimate technique of filming. Just like the two main characters, those acting as either officers or criminals have a real-world quality to them because their dialogue in their screen time appears to be improvised, and the documentary filming style enforces that. They all deliver their lines with the aggressiveness and harshness that comes with years of patrolling and living on the streets of South Central L.A.

The use of video camera footage, by cinematographer Roman Vasyanov, adds an intimacy to the narrative that other law enforcement films don’t normally have. With the footage from the squad car camera, video cameras belonging to both Taylor and the gang members, clip-on cameras placed on Taylor’s and Zavala’s uniforms and surveillance footage from the U.S.-Mexico border, we are thrown in the middle of the bullets, brawls and illegal activity. It’s unnerving, dynamic and very convincing.

Having written other LAPD dramas such as “Training Day,” “S.W.A.T.,” “Dark Blue” and directed “Street Kings,” David Ayer is a fit for this material.

The film finds a balance between scenes involving Taylor and Zavala with their families and without. While the film does share some scenes with the cops’ families, it’s just the right amount because we mainly learn about their families through stories that Taylor and Zavala share with each other.

And, by the two main characters doing so, there is the impression that they can talk to each other about anything that’s going on in their lives, and this strengthens their bond. As the film switches back and forth from the cops to the thugs, more is learned about the crime situation from both sides.

What’s also different about “End of Watch” from other cop films is that because it’s mainly about how the two main characters handle their law enforcement, the film doesn’t focus a lot on the criminals, which is fine. We learn just enough about the side of the criminals to get by so we know what’s going on, and we can then stick with the increasingly dangerous journey of the officers.

As a director, Ayer knows how to use his knowledge of Los Angeles to his advantage, having almost all of his films unfold in that city. He has a familiarity with the streets and the ways how the inhabitants act. Given the film’s genuine look at L.A.’s crime settings and the city’s protectors, Ayer has everyone in the cast act very similar to how you would expect them to act.

Forget about watching any episode of “Cops.” This film is the real deal.

Final grade: A-