‘End of Watch’ is highly watchable, action-packed and a wild ride

Michael Pena and Jake Gyllenhaal in 'End of Watch'
Michael Pena and Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘End of Watch’

The term “End of Watch” has two distinctive but similar meanings to police officers.  Since they refer to the shifts they work as a ‘watch’, the phrase means that their shift is over.  But if you go into a police station where a cop has been killed, especially in the line of duty, it will say “End of Watch” with the date of their death on it.  That’s when you go End of Watch permanently.

This makes it a perfect title for writer/director David Ayer’s latest film, which opens Sept. 21.  As the writer behind Training Day, he clearly has a gift for understanding the realities faced by members of the Los Angeles Police Department, as well as the mindset of these cops.

“Brian Taylor” (Gyllenhaal) and “Mike Zavala” (Peña) are partners at the Newton Street station in the heart of South-Central Los Angeles.  An area once populated almost exclusively by blacks, today they are in the minority and Hispanics/Latinos are the majority.  This has created struggle for control of the streets and the drug trade and makes it a very violent area.

The film opens with Taylor and Zavala in hot pursuit of several suspects that ends in a shoot-out, and then in a month off (with pay) while the shooting is investigated.  After all, Taylor and Zavala survived, while the two suspects did not.

When they are welcomed back a month later, Taylor is now busy filming everything they do as part of his required film project for the arts elective he had to take as part of his plan to get through law school.  Much of the film is shown from the POV of Taylor’s camera and the two pocket cameras he outfits himself and Zavala with.

Anna Kendrick in 'End of Watch'
Anna Kendrick in ‘End of Watch’

From the start the filming is problematic, with “Officer Van Houser” (Harbour) objecting and the “Sarge” (Frank Grillo) ordering Taylor to stop.  Of course, he won’t.  Taylor and Zavala are extremely close, and work together like a very well-oiled machine.  They have an “in-your-face” style of policing that requires them to be able to back up the stuff they say.  What they say to each other is often very funny.  What they will say to the members of the public they supposedly serve will often piss that public off.

They make a traffic stop where a ‘cowboy’ pulls a very expensive looking gun and tries to shoot Zavala, but they arrest him.  Best new line in a film so far this year is how they describe the ornate AK-47 found in the vehicle, but I won’t spoil it.  Not much comes from this bust, which has them wondering what’s going on.  As a result of Taylor’s pushing of this issue, they wander into a situation they shouldn’t have.  Then they gain notoriety by saving children from a burning building, being awarded medals.  When that is followed up by yet another accidental discovery of something a drug cartel working in the area didn’t want discovered, they become targets.  Targets that the cartel’s leader insists get taken out whatever the cost.

Meanwhile their personal lives are becoming more complicated.  Zavala married his high school sweetheart (Martinez) and she’s pregnant.  Taylor, after many short-term relationships, finally manages to connect with “Janet” (Kendrick) and gets married.  Both the wives aren’t happy that their men rushed into a burning building to save someone else’s children and perhaps they should have been a bit more careful from that point forward.

If you’ve seen the trailer, then you know they will end up being ambushed by a bunch of cartel gunners and the question becomes will help arrive in time?  Will both, one, or neither survive?

Ayer’s story, dialogue and direction are strong, awesome, and better than average, respectively.  He elicits powerful performances from Gyllenhaal and Peña.  His use of police jargon, gestures and procedures is right on the money. Clearly he knows the subject or had expert technical advisers.  Or both.  The action is intense, but broken up well by the interludes where the two cops trade friendly insults that might push people who weren’t so entrenched in each other’s lives to trade blows.

You’ll also see a Ginsu knife used in a way that was never even imagined when the Ginsu commercials were all over television.  It’s a terrific shot.

One of the best “cop” films to come along in some time.  See it.

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