If I were a cynic, I would say David Ayer’s “End of Watch” is a movie-length testimonial for the LAPD. But instead I left my cynicism in the Newton Station locker room and went on patrol with officers Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Zavala (Michael Peña). I’m glad I did.
The movie puts you into a black-and-white so you feel the tension and adrenaline rush as these cops patrol one of the worst districts in South Central L.A. It’s every cop movie you’ve ever seen but from a fresh angle: You go into each situation without a clue about its outcome.
The closest dramatic work I can think of is Joseph Wambaugh’s first novel, “The New Centurions.” It too was virtually plotless and episodic in its depiction of the daily jobs of its police protagonists working in minority communities.
(In a huge change though for the LAPD then and now, in this film one of the cops is a Latino, barking commands in Spanish and savvy to the gang-banger sub-culture.)
As with Wambaugh, then a cop trying his hand at portraying fellow officers in fiction, “End of Watch” ignores the presence of bad cops or brutal ones. And unlike “The New Centurions” Ayer doesn’t portray the alcoholism and divorce rates that take its toll on men and women in blue.
Ayer has paid the kind of dues that gives him license to create a testimonial. A product of the very streets he writes about, Ayer wrote one of the better corrupt cop movies, “Training Day” (2001), and had a hand in two other lesser cop screenplays, “Dark Blue” (2002) and “S.W.A.T.” (2003).
The technique here is for nearly every shot and situation to get captured by handheld, surveillance or mounted squad-car cameras. It sounds like a gimmick but it works beautifully right from the opening moments with a chase through backstreets and alleys that ends in a firefight, all caught by a squad car camera.
As the daily patrols continue, officers Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala share their lives with each other in and out of the squad car. Brian relates his increasing interest in a new woman in his life (Anna Kendrick) while Mike talks about the baby on the way with wife Gabby (Natalie Martinez).
They b.s. about all sorts of things with casual, loving insults and wisecrack about the dangers they face hourly. The shock of a police movie without a fictional overlay is what’s bracing here.
As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, action is character so you learn about these guys strictly through their actions — their behavior in extreme situation and instinctual response to provocation.
You might tease out a story line about the increasing possibility of a Mexican drug cartel penetrating South Central and the street gang willing to do its dirty work. But even this takes a backseat to the story of a friendship that is vital to the survival of these two peace officers.
You could complain about there being too much action. Over the course of the movie, these two rescue babies from a burning building, confront crackheads, find “missing” children, stop a truck loaded with weaponry, uncover a safe house for human trafficking and seize a huge cache of narcotics.
On top of all this, they learn they may have been targeted for assassination by a Mexican drug cartel, a not entirely plausible scenario as any cartel would want to penetrate the L.A. market through stealth rather than screaming headlines.
Ayer’s strategy appears to incorporate about every possible situation cops might encounter during routine watches. The only sense that time is evolving comes with a marriage here or a birth there; otherwise these watches are timeless.
Besides the two officers on patrol, the film takes in a couple of tough female cops who are no Cagney & Lacey in America Ferrera’s Officer Orozco and Cody Horn’s Officer Davis; a bitter cop in David Harbour’s Office Van Hauser; and Frank Grillo’s “Sarge,” who tries to play it straight with his officers.
On the streets are a believable bunch of gang-bangers for whom life is cheap including their own. Yahira Garcia plays “La La,” female driver for a gang that includes “Big Evil” (Maurice Compte) and “Demon” (Richard Cabral). All very scary dudes.
Meanwhile, Shondrella Avery is a crack-head mother who can’t remember where she stashed her children. A real-life mayoral candidate, L.A. City Councilman Eric Garcetti, gets to audition for that role in a cameo as the mayor during a medal of valor ceremony.
Thanks to superb cinematography by Roman Vasyanov that imitates all sorts of photographic devices from night-vision surveillance to the handheld camera Brian takes (illegally) on patrol, the action rings true in every instance.
There is nothing super human here; no action a cop might not be expected to perform while on watch. One might quarrel with the ending, which involves moments that do feel fictional. If so, it’s a small lapse compared to the edge-of-your-seat action that has come before.
Opens: September 21, 2012 (Open Road Films)
Production companies: Open Roads and Exclusive Media present a Crave Films production
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Peña, Anna Kendrick, American Ferrera, Frank Grillo, Natalie Martinez
Director/screenwriter: David Ayer
Producers: John Lesher, Nigel Sinclair, Matt Jackson
Executive producers: Randall Emmett, Stepan Martirosyan, Remington Chase, George Furla, Adam Kassan, Stepan Martirosyan, Adam Kassan, Chrisann Verges, Guy East, Tobin Armbrust
Director of photography: Roman Vasyanov
Production designer: Devorah Herbert
Music: David S. Sardy
Costume designer: Mary Claire Hannan
Editor: Dody Dorn
R rating, 108 minutes