The cop genre can be a little tired but few have explored it as thoroughly as David Ayer. Ayer wrote the modern crooked cop movie Training Day with Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke and he's written and directed a handful of other cop dramas based in South Central Los Angeles. Ayer's latest End of Watch has some of the same tropes at his previous movies — crookedness in the force the bond between two partners the push and pull between family and career — but our protagonists' biggest test is the street itself not each other.
Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña are partners and best friends who sling racist insults at each other as often as they pledge their loyalty. As Brian Taylor (Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Peña) they are instantly likeable; they're goofy foul-mouthed brothers who are on the beat in South Central LA. They're definitely not always above board and they're a little smug about a recent bust; they want to find another big catch but when they do it lands them in the middle of a turf war and something way bigger than they could have anticipated. It's ugly it's graphic and it is in some ways a bit salacious in its portrayal of the violence most of us merely read about in the papers.
The conceit that Ayer uses to bring the viewer in close is that Brian is filming their work for a filmmaking class he's taking. Besides the dubious legality there are plenty of times when it's impossible for Brian to be filming so Ayers only uses this device when it's most convenient. At other times the camera moves to a typical third-person POV or even as if we were looking at footage from the in-car camera of a police chase. The most unbelievable aspect of the handheld camera is when the gangsters they're after are filming themselves at parties or on drive-bys. While it's interesting and effective insofar as it brings us up right into the action it's just not logical. At one point Ayer even uses night vision for a suddenly and weirdly introduced enemy. On one hand the use of Brian's footage (and how much it ticks off his fellow cops) is quite effective but on the other it's simply illogical. We're supposed to believe that this is indicative of Brian's goals his desire to grow past the life of an officer on the beat and start a family and all that but at the same time there's not much backing that idea up. Although the family angle comes in later it doesn't seem likely that Brian will give up life with his partner without a big push in another direction.
Ayer deftly switches between the violence of the job and the cops' intimate conversations in their car their regular off-duty lives and the bravado among officers jockeying for position on the force. The type of events Brian and Mike encounter can be stomach-turning; even the cops turn away before the camera offers the audience a look at what they've encountered. It's shocking at times and graphic in a way that's different than a horror movie or a shoot-'em-up like The Expendables 2. It sticks with you after the credits have rolled.
End of Watch also grabs you emotionally although sometimes it is a bit too on the nose. There are more than enough scenes where characters get drunk and mournful about the lifespan or lifestyle of a cop. Brian who is a bit of a womanizer finally meets a woman he can't believe would go for a cop Janet (Anna Kendrick). Kendrick isn't given a lot to do but when she's onscreen she brings some levity to this grim business. Mike's wife Gabby (Natalie Martinez) also has quite a few zingers although her screen time is even less than Kendrick's.
There aren't many other notable female characters. It's great to see America Ferrera play against her Traveling Pants type as a police officer who comes from the neighborhood and knows the people she's up against. Although the butch lesbian cop is played-out Ferrera does a good job bringing Orozco to life. There's also a hint that she was once romantically involved with the female leader of the Latin gang that's taking over South Central. The various gang members and other people the cops meet on their beat are fairly flat too; they're just the bogeymen and women who haunt cops on the streets and in their nightmares. There are some references about a street code and the changing gangs of South Central but it's more of a plot device than anything else.
In the end though this isn't a sociological study; this is a portrait of a friendship. End of Watch has a lot to offer for fans of the genre especially if they've got their Kleenex at the ready.