It says something about how the LAPD tends to get portrayed in the movies that when Officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña) are introduced on screen at the beginning of the surprising cop drama End of Watch, it feels like it's only a matter of time before they plant evidence on someone, steal drugs or money, beat or kill someone without warrant or let loose with something terribly racist.
The film is, after, the latest from David Ayer, who wrote and directed Street Kings and scripted Training Day, two features that portrayed Los Angeles law enforcement as morally compromised at best and violently corrupt at worst. That sense of apprehension carries through an opening scene in which Taylor and Zavala shoot two suspects down in what appears to be legitimate self-defense. (They're cleared of any wrongdoing and roll back onto the street on patrol.) The two cops are cocky and funny and young, and it still takes a good half hour to accept that they may be as forthright and dedicated to their jobs as they appear to be.
End of Watch is a Millennial police drama. It's a generation or two removed from Rodney King and the Rampart scandal, and Ayer manages to give a startling sense of a changing of the LAPD guard as well as the forces they're up against. Its main characters are tough but not yet jaded cops who bicker with affectionate familiarity about race and make obligatory gay jokes that lack the sting of homophobia. The longstanding L.A. battle against gang violence is ongoing, but lurking behind it is a new and more frightening enemy: the Sinaloa Cartel, onto whose ominous dealings Taylor and Zavala stumble more times than is good for their health.
The film's found footage aesthetic also speaks to its refreshing next-gen spirit. Taylor and Zavala blithely record themselves on the job — even though fellow officer Orozco (America Ferrera) warns them their footage can be subpoenaed and used against them should something go wrong — for the night school film class that Taylor's taking for a pre-law program arts requirement. Both he and his partner pin cameras to their uniforms and mount the camcorder on the front of their black and white (and we witness some stomach-churning car chases from that perspective).
It's a pretty standard police drama technique, but like Chronicle earlier this year, the conceit that most of what we're seeing was filmed by the characters on screen is only a loose one, allowed to drop away when it might interfere. Mostly, the self-documentation is a way of letting us get to know the central pair, who sometimes offer asides or explanations to the camera and who don't feel they have anything to hide.
End of Watch is fond of Taylor and Zavala almost to a fault — a scene early on in which the latter puts his weapons aside to fistfight a belligerent gang member, earning his respect in the process, feels ridiculous even as it establishes the partners' frat-boy delight in their work. Fortunately, the two characters are easily likable — Gyllenhaal looks more comfortable on screen than he has in years — whether they're busting each other's balls or discoursing on marriage. Zavala is married to his high-school sweetheart Gabby (Natalie Martinez) while Taylor is getting serious about Janet (Anna Kendrick). The film is shaped around the two cops rather than around much of a plot and offers a heightened slice of the contemporary lives of law-enforcement officers assigned to a rough area of the city. It's a depiction that includes some stirringly tense encounters with a cracked-out mother unable to find her children, and an ex-con whose encounter with fellow cop Van Hauser (David Harbour) and his rookie partner goes gruesomely wrong.
Taylor and Zavala aren't the only ones with access to recording equipment. One of the film's most interesting aspects is that it also includes the self-documentation of the Curbside Gang, who are run by Big Evil (Maurice Compte) and kept in line by the swaggering female thug La La (Yahira Garcia). Everyone's the star of their own movie, particularly when they're holding the cameras, and End of Watch depicts a gang-on-gang drive-by from both sides: While the primarily black Bloods barbecue and commiserate about getting driven out of their neighborhood by the growing Mexican community, the Latino Curbsiders roll up and open fire on them.
It's only the cartel point of view that goes unrepresented, and its appearances provide End of Watch with its most memorably haunting yet bothersome scenes: stacked body parts in a darkened house, jewel-encrusted handguns, people locked away behind chicken wire like animals. When we see the cartel handiwork through Taylor and Zavala's eyes, it looks demonic, apocalyptic and incomprehensible compared to the street skirmishes that they're used to tamping down. And though the real-life cartels have shown themselves to be capable of all this and worse, the near-supernatural way in which they're depicted in End of Watch doesn't mesh with the film's otherwise matter-of-fact sensibility and its warts-and-all adoration of the cops it portrays. Unlike the gang members, addicts and vicious ex-cons, who are all shown to be vividly human, the cartels are left to be symbolic — a metaphor for dread of terrible things coming that even the most devoted enforces of order won't be able to handle.
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