END OF WATCH
Written and Directed by: David Ayer
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Peña, Anna Kendrick, Frank Grillo, America Ferrera, Cody Horn, David Harbour, Natalie Martinez, Maurice Compte, and Yahira Garcia
Being a cop patrolling South Central Los Angeles is hard. Making a compelling film about this all-too-familiar story is even harder. One such film is writer-turned-director David Ayer’s END OF WATCH. As the man who wrote one of the grittiest depictions of Los Angeles police life (TRAINING DAY), he’s set a high bar for himself – a bar he indeed clears! END OF WATCH is a visceral, gritty, adrenaline rush embued with warmth, humor, and staggering poignancy. It’s a genuine thrill ride and one of the best movies this year.
Our riveting ride-a-long starts with a grabber: Footage from a cop car dashboard cam shows a routine (for them) but exciting (for us) car chase around the mean streets of Los Angeles. Leading the charge are officers Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala (Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña). After killing the criminal during a shootout and subsequently getting suspended, the two return to their department to face razzing from their fellow officers and a new beat assignment – the dangerous streets of South Central. At the behest of his superiors, officer Taylor is creating a video diary for his law class. This hand-held documentary style is our clever gateway to adventure and Ayer’s brilliantly layered character development. Growing weary of his unrelenting lifestyle, Taylor is becoming jaded and yearns for more. The same goes for Zavala, who grows more combative each day. All of this changes when Taylor meets cute-as-a-button Janet (Anna Kendrick), and Zavala’s wife Gabby (Natalie Martinez) gets pregnant. Just as things are looking up for Taylor and Zavala, the pair uncover a cache of money and weapons during a routine traffic stop. Marked for death by a Mexican cartel led by Big Evil (Maurice Compte) and La La (Yahira Garcia), shit gets real – fast!
You think you know the story, but you don’t. Intense and intimate, this is a haunting look into a type of brotherhood we’ve never seen before captured on film. It places the audience in the front seat of the in-your-face action. Ayers also gives us a surprising amount of tension-relieving laughter that helps viewers care about the characters. Gyllenhaal and Peña are nothing short of amazing, and I suspect they will earn some well-deserved awards buzz. There are also strong supporting performances from America Ferrera (who’s fantastically badass here), Frank Grillo (who continues his streak of being remarkable in the smallest of roles), and Cody Horn (whose cool awkwardness works far better here than in MAGIC MIKE). And special kudos to the sound design team. Bullets fly and V-8 engines roar in an exciting chorus that will propel viewers to the edge of their seats.
Ayer’s choice to film in a fly-on-the-wall documentary style works tremendously to augment the narrative making it modern, clever, and inventive. It’s transportive storytelling with a cinéma vérité hook. Audiences really get the feeling that each time these guys answer a call, even for a welfare check, it could be their last – or at least a deal them a good amount of peril. The format isn’t completely successful, however, as it feels rather convenient that gang members are also filming themselves committing crimes.
Hazards, heart, and humor make for a perfect blend. The journey is filled with highs and lows and even a few (rather unexpected) tears. This is exciting filmmaking at its best. You might even be tempted to get pulled over on the way home from the theater, just so you can thank the officers for what they do on a daily basis.
END OF WATCH opens nationally on September 21.