I’ll admit to having some trepidation about the first few scenes of “End of Watch.” The film opens with a high-speed pursuit captured entirely on the built-in camera of the LAPD squad car driven by Officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña), and the following scene features Brian talking into a video camera about a film project he’s doing for school.
Lest you think “End of Watch” is going to be 2012’s umpteenth “found footage” movie made up entirely of shaky, pixelly shots and actors looking right into the lens, the film quickly cuts to an omniscient point of view; from that point on, cinematographer Roman Vasyanov occasionally peppers the film with cell-phone footage and surveillance-cam POV without going whole-hog. As a result, we’re spared post-“Blair Witch” motion sickness, but the movie still gets to shoot stock moments like fights and shoot-outs from some unexpected angles.
Those angles aren’t the only twists the film has to offer. “End of Watch” may seem like just another movie about the mean streets of South Central and the blue knights that keep the peace, but writer-director David Ayer (who previously pounded this beat with “Street Kings,” “Harsh Times” and the screenplay for “Training Day”) focuses on the characters while slowly and subtly bringing the plot up from the background.
Brian and Mike are both good cops and good friends, which the film wisely shows rather than tells. They’re capable of heroics (after they receive commendations for rescuing children from a burning house, Brian admits to Mike that he only went in to follow his partner), but they spend much of their days cruising around and goofing on each other in the way that close confidants do.
And while we see the two of them experience life both on and off the job — Mike’s wife Gabby (Natalie Martinez) gives birth to their child, Brian courts and eventually marries the pretty and intelligent Janet (Anna Kendrick) — we start to realize that the pair’s professional activities have put them in the cross hairs of a very dangerous drug cartel. Ayer masterfully builds tension as the audience comes to understand the peril our heroes are in well before they do.
There are some missteps, particularly in regard to the ending (which won’t be spoiled here), but overall, “End of Watch” offers up several compelling characters, thanks both to Ayers’ writing and his direction of a very talented cast. Kendrick and Martinez make the most of their secondary roles (and the cops played by America Ferrera, David Harbour and Cody Horn are compelling enough to rate their own movie), but this is Gyllenhaal and Peña’s show all the way.
From their hilarious comic chemistry to their commitment to the necessarily darker side of their roles, both actors make these boys in blue thoroughly vivid and complex. After decades of gritty and even darkly comic movies and TV shows about the lives of cops on the street, it’s surprising that they can still be surprising.