Were I thirteen years old (and alas, I am not), End of Watch might well be my new favorite movie. David Ayer's new shoot-'em-up buddy-cop flick has both a macho exterior and a heart of gold, in its swaggering banter, kinetic gunfights, and aww-shucks love stories.
As such, it's a perfectly diverting time-waster. But for those who have seen Training Day and Dark Blue (scripted by Ayer), Harsh Times (written and directed by Ayer), and Street Kings (directed by Ayer), the milieu End of Watch introduces as "Once upon a time in South Central" may feel a bit old hat (the plot's cartel menace will also ring a bell with fans of TV's The Shield and Sons of Anarchy).
Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña star as Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala, LAPD partners who playfully bust each other's chops throughout each day on the beat. They're also two of the best cops on the street, and though they may be unconventional (or unprofessional) at times, they knuckle down right quick when the situation gets serious. Most importantly, these guys care deeply, about their work, their women (Anna Kendrick and Natalie Martinez), and each other—though they're more inclined to prove the latter in actions than in words.
As written and directed by Ayer, the film's primary stylistic move is to have the action "captured" by small consumer cameras, including one secreted on Taylor's person. It's one of many tricks in End of Watch that has been pulled before, and the conceit requires a suspension of disbelief, especially in scenes that find the bad guys alone. The partners boast to the camera (a proud "We are the police" manifesto), offer tongue-in-cheek secrets of the force ("Policing's all about comfortable footwear," says Mike), and record their heroic efforts to curtail what they call the three major food groups in the ghetto: "dope, money and guns."
Taylor's desire to be a detective pushes the duo to overstep their bounds, one unexpected bust ruffling feathers within law enforcement and setting off a powerful Mexican cartel. "You just tugged the tail of the snake," warns a colleague. The escalating danger climaxes in a major urban gun battle, last in a series of adrenaline fixes that have included a car chase and a home fire.
The latter episode, and the dual focus on heroic work and goodhearted private lives will put some in mind of Ron Howard's populist firefighter drama "Backdraft." It's hard not to recognize End of Watch as a welcome, implicit apology for the broadly drawn bad cops of Ayer's previous films. And yet End of Watch has its own kind of broadly drawn archetypes, and an irrepressible sense of "how about this?" flash that's at odds with its disingenuous "verité" approach. "R" rating aside, End of Watch blends the nastiness and innocence of a playground game of "Cops and Robbers."
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]