There hasn’t been a whole lot of “found footage” worth finding in films made over the past several years, but writer-director David Ayer snaps that streak with the unexpectedly magnificent police drama End of Watch. This is easily the most immersive and brilliantly crafted cop movie since 2001’s Training Day (which Ayer also wrote). It may well be simply the best ever made.
Talk about defying expectations. You walk into a picture like The Master, and you have reason to suspect greatness awaits. I walked into Ayer’s latest thinking I was in for little more than 109 minutes of gritty realism set in cinema’s go-to hellhole: South Central LA. Ayer is, after all, the poet laureate of the Los Angeles Police Department. More than anything else, the city’s cops are what he makes movies about: In addition to writing Training Day, he wrote and directed Harsh Times and directed Street Kings, both police thrillers. This is his artistic turf.
End of Watch transcends the genre with an unprecedented combination of pulse-pounding action, Mamet-smart dialogue and casually spectacular performances. It’s one of the darkest cop stories ever told — there are moments when it feels more like a horror movie. And yet, at its center is a friendship as loving and pure as any in the history of romantic film.
This is the story of two self-described “ghetto street cops.” Jake Gyllenhaal plays Brian Taylor. Michael Peña is Mike Zavala. They’ve worked together for years and rarely use those names, preferring to address each other as “partner.”
Zavala is married to his high-school sweetheart (Natalie Martinez). Taylor is getting serious with his latest “badge bunny” (Anna Kendrick). Much of the film depicts the banter between the two men as they patrol these increasingly mean streets, and much of their banter concerns their relationships with the women in their lives. Touchingly, Peña’s character entreats Gyllenhaal’s to settle down so that his friend’s life off the job can be as satisfying as his own.
The dialogue in these scenes, much of it improvised by the actors following months shadowing real law-enforcement personnel, is literally worth the price of admission. I would happily watch a movie consisting of nothing but these two “brothers” razzing each other, sharing secrets and mocking each other’s cultures from the front seat of their black-and-white.
These moments of easy camaraderie are interrupted by startling bursts of life-threatening action. Sometimes they afford opportunities for heroism, as when the pair races into a burning home to rescue three young children. On other occasions, they offer glimpses into a great, mystifying human darkness. A routine pull over puts the partners in the crosshairs of a cold-blooded Mexican cartel operating out of LA. “You just tugged on the tail of a snake,” a federal agent informs them ominously. “It’s going to turn around and bite you back.”
Movie-critic law prohibits me from expanding on where the story goes from there, but I can tell you I can’t recall a film in which the tension and suspense were so overwhelming. A throwaway gimmick in most directors’ hands, the found-footage premise is used here to sensational effect.
Brian Taylor is taking a film class in his off hours, and the day-in-the-life footage he shoots, combined with that recorded on other characters’ video cameras and cellphones, puts us squarely beside them on a nightmare ride-along. It’s an uncanny, often unsettling experience for the viewer and a truly impressive achievement for the filmmaker.
On top of that, we get superb supporting performances (America Ferrera, Frank Grillo, David Harbour), cutting-edge cinematography and a screenplay so fresh, not a single cop goes rogue. End of Watch, on the contrary, is one of the few movies I can think of where the forces of good prove almost as unfathomable as the forces of evil.