Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena are very good at what they do. I’m not talking about their characters in “End of Watch.” I’m talking about their vocation. Gyllenhaal has had both critical and popular success, and while Pena has had the critical acclaim, he hasn’t yet enjoyed the fame he so rightfully deserves. “End of Watch” may change that.
Gyllenhaal and Pena are LAPD officers Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala. In our opening scene they’re in their police cruiser, chasing a couple of gang-banging perps. We see things from the point of view of the cruiser — moving in out of narrow alleys, traversing the narrow streets of east of LA while Gyllenhaal’s Taylor treats the audience to a compelling voiceover narration-slash-lecture of what it means to be a cop, how cops approach their job and why they do what they do.
I’m no fan of voiceovers, especially when the first thing you hear is a voiceover matched to the action on the screen. There are, however, always exceptions to this rule, and the opening of “End of Watch” is one of them.
Taylor is a former Marine and Zavala, who meets Taylor at the police academy, is a high school stoner with no direction but who’s compelled to seek a career by the love of his high school sweetheart and wife, Gabby. Zavala’s Mexican heritage is a badge of honor as pronounced as the LAPD shield he wears on his chest, while Taylor is confident and handsome, a whip-smart thrill seeker. In many ways they’re opposites; in others they’re exactly alike. Whatever the equation, they’re best friends and brothers in every sense of the word.
If all of this sounds a little clichéd, it gets worse. Director David Ayer employs the “found footage” technique, as much of what we see comes from cameras Taylor is using for a film class. Seriously. At first, the idea was bothersome and quite frustrating — a tired genre (the buddy cop movie) utilizing an overused, abused style. But good storytelling and great acting will always overcome clichés, even when the plot itself — our cops ultimately find themselves the targets of a drug cartel — is a cliché.
Even with those usual conceits, “End of Watch” is an unusual cop drama. While it puffs out its chest with plenty of grit, action and salty language, beneath that chest is a huge heart, bursting with warmth and humor. More than anything else, this is a love story between two men who care deeply for each other, their families, their significant others and their community. In the history of great cop movies, you’ll be hard-pressed to find better chemistry between two actors than Gyllenhaal and Pena (a big statement, I know). David Ayer’s “Training Day,” which he wrote, helped guide Denzel Washington to an Oscar. With “End of Watch,” perhaps he’ll guide Gyllenhaal and Pena to nominations, too.
Four-and-a-half out of five stars.