Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña play Officers Taylor and Zavala, patrol cops in Los Angeles’s tough South Central neighborhood. A routine traffic stop turns into something bigger when they confiscate money and guns from a cartel member. “Be careful,” they’re warned by a senior officer, “You just tugged on the tail of a snake that’s going to turn around and bite you.”
“End of Watch” is all build up. The movie spends an hour-and-a-half introducing its characters, giving us a sense of the dynamic between Taylor and Zavala as they bust chops and solve crimes. We learn about the mundane work-a-day nature of policing (“Policing is all about comfortable footwear,” we’re told.) We also come to discover that these guys are trouble magnets. Not since Angela Landsbury in “Murder She Wrote” have fictional characters have such a knack for being where the crime is.
It takes a while to warm to the “story’s” episodic nature. Director David Ayers (who specializes in LA cop drams, having written “Training day,” “S.W.A.T.” and directed “Street Kings”) eschews traditional storytelling for character study. Through a loosely related series of scenes we learn about the sense of love, honor and loyalty shared by these cops. Once you allow yourself to be drawn into the performances and the chemistry of the leads, you’ll be sucked in straight through to the exciting conclusion.
The beginning is tough, however. The first half-hour is stagey. The having-the-character-film-part-of-the-movie thing has been done to death, and adds a level of artificiality to the movie that doesn’t need to be there. The Barf-O-Matic hand held camera work adds a sense of immediacy to the action scenes, but it’s overused and it is sometimes hard to tell what’s happening. Take out the wobbly cam and no one would miss it.
Also, it’s hard to discuss the end without being spoilerific, but let’s say the movie goes from jovial to gritty and then back to jovial again. I didn’t love it, but Hollywood seems to be allergic to tragic endings and Ayers found a way to circumvent that and stay true-ish to his gritty vision for the story.
Despite an unnecessary coda, “End of Watch” works because of the naturalistic performances and the climax.