The writer of Training Day and Harsh Times brings us more cop movie grit with End of Watch, a vivid series of impressionistic sketches of a year in the lives of two Los Angeles police officers.
These aren't the corrupt cops writer-director David Ayer built his name on. They're just patrolmen, in a family of officers — sometimes heroic, often cocky, occasionally miscalculating. And in telling their stories episodically, with a rhythm that slowly builds suspense, Ayer gets at the level of trust they have to have for each other and the meaning of that old cop movie cliché, "He took a bullet for me."
Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña) are young but have been partners so long they're like an old married couple — comically bickering, teasing, picking at each other's sore spots. Brian is single, ambitious. He wants to make detective. He's willing to take a shortcut or two to get there.
Mike is more blue-collar — happily married, a father, happy to be where he is in the force. But the uniform hasn't taken the chip off his shoulder. Call him the wrong name when he's arresting you, and it's "go time."
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During the course of a year, we see the shifting fortunes of their lives, shootings that have to be justified and a steadily escalating violence that spills over the border from Mexico. Mike and Brian find themselves stumbling into more and more cartel business.
Gyllenhaal brings a swashbuckling bravado to Brian, who is something of a player when it comes to the ladies. He's not above hooking up with groupies ("Badge Bunnies") but might be tempted when somebody special (like Anna Kendrick) comes along.
Mike has matured in different ways, clinging to juvenile neighborhood notions of "respect" but adult enough to know love when he sees it.
Ayer's film begins with 45 minutes of procedure, depiction of the cop community (America Ferrara and Cody Horn are fellow officers) and light touches. The police are bilingual, by necessity, aware of where they can make a difference and when they need to walk away. The calls they answer range from fires to missing children, loud parties to "shots fired — officer down."
Our heroes' banter is easy, informal, with goofy moments of the sort of race-baiting that only two close friends could get away with. It's all underlined with "I love you, man."
They can joke about pulling a guy over and confiscating a gold-plated assault rifle ("It's Liberace's AK-47!"). But we can sense what's coming, even if they can't.
Their guns are out of their holsters more, the threat of violence gathers like clouds over the city.
Ayer resorts to that favorite crutch of current filmmakers: the hand-held video recorder (Brian is doing a video project for his night school class) but is so inconsistent with it that he abandons that point of view mid-scene.
What he manages most masterfully here is the drip-drip-drip of rising tension, a build-up that leaves you with a sense of dread.
And Peña and Gyllenhaal so fully inhabit these well-rounded characters that you worry for them, worry what they'll do on this day or night when they climb into their cruiser, and what will become of them by the end of this watch.