Review: “End of Watch”

“End of Watch” is a superlative cop film by way of the war movie. That’s not an exaggeration, as its two protagonists, beat officers in the worst part of Los Angeles, patrol an area that seems just about as foreign and violent to most Americans as Afghanistan.

The movie departs from the cop genre of the past decade by featuring officers who aren’t corrupt, and who approach their dangerous position without complaining of the peril or wondering about the politics and sociology of their situation. Writer/director David Ayer, himself a creative force behind many dirty cop films, unfurls the story as a character piece, a salute to hard men doing a necessary job. “End of Watch” is the tonal opposite of nonsense such as last year’s “Rampart,” which purported to be about the police but was really about the filmmakers’ own nihilism.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña give career-best performances as Officers Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala, respectively, partners whose shared job-stresses have made them as close as siblings. Both come across as nearly fearless, but there’s evidence that their bravado is more a function of self-preservation than genuine aggression — the necessary attitude, both public and internal, needed to confidently patrol what is essentially a warzone.

Seen largely from the perspective of a camera that Taylor totes around, most of the plot comes in loosely connected episodes highlighting Taylor and Zavala’s most interesting police encounters and most important personal moments. There’s a genuine tension to the former, which more often than not involve confrontations with violent, evil men and women.

The film’s mockumentary style is shot and edited with clarity and exudes a convincing you-are-there feel, even if it doesn’t amount to anything more dramatically interesting than a traditional storytelling method could have. Ayer is clearly more interested in these characters and their travails than any sort of overarching plot, and loosely connects many of their adventures to justify the climactic event. A few improbabilities emerge as a result, but the film’s overall construction is so solid and its conclusion ties things together so nicely that these ultimately seem irrelevant.

Gyllenhaal and Peña are well supported by Anna Kendrick and Natalie Martinez as their respective spouses, characters who are also deftly handled by Ayer. In another filmmaker’s hands, the wives’ scenes might have have seemed slow or out of place compared to the police-work, but Ayer ensures that they feel organic and integral to the lives of the leads, emblematic of both the relief that Taylor and Zavala feel when they get off the job and what they stand to lose should things go wrong. The result is a story-thread that manages to be both unsentimental yet resonant upon conclusion.

Ayer’s previous work involves writing and directing films such as “Training Day,” “Dark Blue,” “Street Kings,” and “Harsh Times.” All of these revolved around protagonists possessed of great evil, only some of whom strove for redemption. This is perhaps Ayer’s first film in which his heroes never come across as corrupt or morally broken, and it’s also likely his best. What is it about Taylor and Zavala that allows them to stay decent? Perhaps because they’re good men, or maybe because of one another’s support, their tough job doesn’t appear to destroy their humanity. Surely, they don’t take fire and deal with mass graves every day, but when they do, it doesn’t scar them as it would most. Over the course of the film, it becomes clear that these are the ideal men for this line of work.