‘End of Watch’ in Review

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James Cromwell was the kind, fatherly and cop-killing police chief in L.A. Confidential. Woody Harrelson was the racist, hedonistic, paraplegic-beating officer in Rampart. If Hollywood were to be believed, there’s not a member of the Los Angeles Police Department who doesn’t steal PCP off neighborhood drug dealers, or run a secret prostitution ring, or engage in a dozen other forms of base corruption.

With End of Watch, writer-director David Ayer (Training Day, S.W.A.T.) seeks to change that perception, creating a film where the LAPD is the last line of defense between the denizens of Los Angeles and the hellish forces of Mexican drug cartels.
The two men leading the fight for LA are Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala, played by Jake Gyllenhaal (Zodiac) and Michael Peña (Crash), respectively. Taylor plays shaving cream tricks on fellow officers that would be juvenile at an eight year-old’s slumber party. Zavala wrestles a two-time felon to see who is manlier. The two men are both police officers and 30-year old frat boys. They are also two of the most saintly police officers ever displayed on a movie screen.  The two partners and best friends save wet-eyed toddlers from blazing houses and rescue hundreds of human slaves on a whim. Taylor and Zavala could easily have been embarrassingly one-dimensional, but the incredible chemistry between Peña and Gyllenhaal makes them feel honest, intelligent and likable.
Ayer weaves the bullet-filled exploits of his two leads with their home lives and relationships with fellow officers. The characters; the worried wife, the rookie cop, the angry lieutenant – border on cliché, but the ensemble cast act with a sincerity that makes the End of Watch’s LAPD, so often cynically and drolly portrayed, a breath of fresh, idealistic air.
If only that care was put into the film’s villains. Instead, we are left with a group of young, pot-smoking, Mexican gangsters, led by a man actually named “Big Evil,” who are out to murder the two young arbiters of justice in order to gain the respect of… somebody. I’m not really sure who, and I don’t think Ayer knew or cared. These cardboard cutout villains and the faceless cartel commit acts of violence that are, at times, sickening. Be prepared to have a restless night if you see this movie.
With a handheld visual style that generates a surprising amount of tension and thrills and charismatic performances by the film’s two leads, End of Watch has the makings of a great movie. The film’s biggest problem is that it’s not entirely sure what it wants to be. Is it just another buddy-cop action flick? Or is it a realistic portrayal of brave men in the midst of LA’s drug wars? Shockingly gruesome violence prevents the former, an obvious distinction between good and evil prevents the latter. What we end up with is an engrossing movie that is often funny, at other times poignant and always emotionally honest. If Aryan had cared about the movie’s villains as much as he cared about its heroes, however, End of Watch could have been an LA crime classic.