On one hand, you have the action comedy genre that tends to forgo realism for gunfights and laughs. These tended to give praise to the police officers, even if they were flawed. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, Mel Gibson and Danny Glover dominated this genre with the Lethal Weapon franchise.
Then there are the more recent films that try to aim towards realism by presenting a gritty, darker version of police officers who may not necessarily be a protagonist. Training Day was the breakout cop film of the 2000’s, and the main character turned out to be completely corrupt. SWAT and Brooklyn’s Finest also presented stories in which one or more of the main characters turn out to be corrupt current/former police officers.
With End of Watch, writer/director David Ayer amalgamates these ideas into one. Given his previous work (the aforementioned Training Day, SWAT, and Dark Blue), this is a bit of a new path in that the film deals not with corruption, but with the fraternal relationship that develops between partners. This is more of a police version of Ladder 49 than any of the aforementioned films [note: not in the sense of how the film ends, but rather in the sense of going behind the scenes in the lives of a person dedicated to service].
Having worked in retail loss prevention for years, I dealt with many police officers and detectives, and several of my good friends are police officers; hell, my next-door-neighbor is a lieutenant in the police department. I’ve the utmost respect for those who put the uniform on. Yes, I recognize that the police aren’t perfect. There are some who go on power trips, and I’ve dealt with my fair share of police who aren’t the most pleasant people ever.
Having said that, for the most part, they’re simply folks who are trying to do their job and make it home to their families at the end of the night. “I may not always agree with the law, but I will enforce it,” Officer Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) claims at the beginning. He and Officer Zavala (Michael Peña) are in pursuit of two suspects, which ends up with a shootout, killing both suspects. Once their names are cleared in the shooting and they return from administrative leave, they go back out patrolling the streets of Los Angeles.
Zavala joined the police force to provide for his family. He married his wife just after high school and the two are expecting their first child. Taylor is a former Marine who’s taking a film class as part of his pre-law requirements and begins video-taping their patrols. He meets Janet (Anna Kendrick) and they begin dating, eventually marrying.
What begins as some routine traffic stops or investigations eventually turn into something far more sinister. Big Evil (Maurice Compte) is trafficking in drugs and illegal immigrants through the Mexican cartel. Zavala and Taylor uncover a truck carrying gold-plated arms and cash, then stumble upon a house holding several dozen destitute immigrants. At this point, a federal agent informs them they just painted giant targets on their back, which they dismiss. Enraged at the proceedings, the head of the Mexican cartel informs Big Evil he’s to eliminate them at any cost.
Heading into the film, I kind of expected it to be a film-length version of “Southland,” the seminal television show following a group of police officers in the LAPD, and in a way it is, but it goes deeper than the show. Whereas “Southland” focuses on several different officers, End of Watch places the emphasis solely on Taylor and Zavala. There are supporting officers, namely Davis (Cody Horn) and Orozco (America Ferrera), but it’s Zavala and Taylor on screen 95% of the time.
For me, the best part of the movie was that it wasn’t geared towards non-stop action. They answer several calls, but not all of them end in shootouts; in fact, they earn their biggest accolades for pulling children out of a burning house, for which they receive the Medal of Valor (the highest medal awarded by the LAPD).
It’s the fraternal bond that really drew me in to the film. Gyllenhaal and Peña exhibit genuine chemistry as two friends. A large chunk of the film takes place in the front of their interceptor, simply bantering back and forth at each other. These guys are best friends who tease each other mercilessly, but in an instant would die for each other, a feeling I think anyone who sees the film will be able to understand. My friends and I make fun of each other constantly when we’re out, but when push comes to shove, we all look out for each other. Zavala makes reference to this at Taylor’s wedding when he tells Janet she’s now a part of the family, not just Zavala’s, but the LAPD’s.
I walked out of the theater emotionally drained. The film’s full of drama and suspense, but it also has its share of joy and humor. Some of the stories they tell each other provide quite a bit of levity and bring a little balance to the story. The film aims to create an emotional bond to these two, and it does an incredible job. I don’t remember the last time I cared so much about whether or not the main characters lived through the film. I cannot recommend this film highly enough.
End of Watch gets an A.