“Comfortable footwear. Police is all about comfortable footwear.”
If David Ayer is to be believed, life as a South Central L.A. cop is a ticking time bomb ready to explode. What the region isn’t, however, is a cesspool of corrupt officers on the take forming yet one more gang of street thugs to combat. This is a new development in a career built on the nefarious deeds of men in power and the amorality of fresh blood taken under their wings. The writer/director of Harsh Times, Street Kings, and scribe of Training Day, Ayer has decided to showcase a pair of bona fide heroes in his newest End of Watch. Almost like an apology to the men and women protecting and serving our domestic front lines for cashing in on their potential to stray from the righteous path, Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña) showcase what it really means to be a cop.
Ayer takes us into their brotherhood risking lives everyday to cleanse the scum hiding in plain sight. We’re caught in the action from frame one via a high-speed chase through the city filmed by a police cruiser’s camera pointing out the windshield. Thinking it’s just an adrenaline pumping opening sequence, we soon discover our leads were driving all along. After a love tap sends the perpetrator’s car into a tailspin we watch as Brian and Mike exit before opening fire in retaliation. From an untrained eye it all appears a legal, self defensive act with only an odd celebratory acknowledgement between the two showing there might be more to the situation than previously thought. There’s little time to think, show remorse, or second-guess what just happened, though. It was kill or be killed.
Having seen Ayer’s previous films doesn’t help preconceptions and I really thought this would be the beginning of a long, checkered path of complicated characters on the force. It isn’t surprising to then see the pair weeks later—after being officially cleared of wrongdoing—poking fun at their comrades and bucking authority. This first day back on the job becomes our entry into the film and its stylistic approach courtesy of Brian’s night school documentary project depicting life as a policeman. Toting a digital camera around while he and Mike place tiny, hidden lenses on their jackets, we’re given an uncensored look behind the steely personas knocking on our car windows that we try to avoid. There’s good-natured chiding, practical jokes, sarcastic banter to pass the time driving, and a whole lot of “Cops”-esque action.
Despite the boys’ penchant for having fun, though, they’re all business when on a call. Sure there’s dust-ups with local miscreants—sometimes even a ‘friendly’ sparring match putting honor on the line behind closed doors, but these two are the good guys. Unwilling to sit back and be pigeonholed as grunts of the department, these partners become proactive in their desire to clean the streets. Assigned a new district after the time off, making their presence known is a top priority as they demand respect and won’t back down from a challenge even if it means going above and beyond the duties of their position. After seeing duct taped babies, chopped up bodies, and the aftermath of a Latino on Black drive-by, Taylor and Zavala decide they’ll do whatever is necessary.
What makes End of Watch so enthralling is Gyllenhaal and Peña’s rapport. These two are comic gold while also fully capable of eliciting the emotions of the job’s dramatic center. Hilarious when mocking each other’s race, culture, and intelligence, we see early on that they’re brothers who would do anything for the other. It’s seen off the clock with Mike’s wife Gabby (Natalie Martinez) and Brian’s new girlfriend Janet (Anna Kendrick) by their sides as well as on the street. Always covering each other against every angle, if one runs into a burning building the other follows. There is a palpable love between them through the good and the bad, knowing each other at their core and still being willing to take a bullet if the situation presented itself. This is what it means to be a cop; they protect their own.
A great supporting cast bolsters them with the hard-nosed Orozco (America Ferrera) and Davis (Cody Horn), hot-tempered underachiever Van Hauser (David Harbour), overwhelmed rookie Sook (Kristy Wu), and understanding Sarge (Frank Grillo). If anything, the script might be faulted for not showing any corrupt cops at all—this idyllic utopia of protectors too squeaky clean to be believable. But I’m not sure you could achieve the story Ayer wanted to tell without excising this broken aspect of the system. He wants to show the heroism at play, not the nonsense filling the public’s minds with ideas our police aren’t motivated by honest desires. No, we need to believe they are incapable of sabotaging their oath to ‘serve and protect’. We need street thugs like Mr. Tre (Cle Shaheed Sloan) carrying on with respect of authority despite still doing their thing.
Ultimately, End of Watch isn’t about the job; it’s about the men and women wearing the badge within it. With Big Evil (Maurice Compte) and his gang wreaking havoc with Mexican drug cartel backing, we must have someone with which to put our faith. Ayer portrays this volatile life and the dangers inherent in doing the right thing through violence, death, and the heated tension brewing beneath the surface when cops reconcile the safety of their city with that of their family. It’s a tragic existence few have the capacity to follow through on and while Gyllenhaal and Peña may depict the impossible ideal, their characterizations are spot-on. These are the guys I want patrolling the streets where I live—men refusing to back down out of fear because they’ve seen what would happen if they did.
 Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña star as police offers in END OF WATCH, a powerful story of family, friendship, love, honor and courage – in theaters everywhere September 28, 2012. Credit: Scott Garfield, Distributor: Open Road Films
[2 & 3] Photo by Scott Garfield, (c) 2011 Sole Productions, LLC