There are no dirty cops in “End of Watch,” another tense, violent — and surprisingly affecting — police drama from “Training Day” writer David Ayer. Ayer, who also directs, has created a portrait of law enforcement under pressure that is as ennobling as it is gritty. Despite enduring a level of work stress well beyond what most of us deal with, its heroes, L.A.P.D. officers Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala (Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena, respectively), aren’t alcoholic, on the take or gratuitously violent.
They aren’t exactly altar boys either.
Occasionally, Brian and Mike bend the rules. In one notable scene, Mike removes his service weapon and dukes it out, hand to hand, with a belligerent citizen who’s been baiting him (Everton Lawrence). That guy ends up having more respect for the police when he emerges from the fight. (It helps that Mike kicks the stuffing out of him. And that Mike doesn’t press charges for assaulting an officer.)
Such is the macho code of the street. Like “Training Day,” “End of Watch” is a testosterone-fueled roller coaster ride where, for the most part, the only significant women are arm candy — Anna Kendrick as Brian’s girlfriend and Natalie Martinez as Mike’s wife. The rare female officers (America Ferrera and Cody Horn) almost behave like guys, tossing off “yo mamma” insults and swaggering along with the boys.
A welcome exception: One of the main bad guys is actually a bad girl. Rapper Yahira “Flakiss” Garcia plays a scary gang-banger that Brian and Mike tangle with when, in the course of their routine patrols, they inadvertently find themselves interfering with the local operation of a ruthless Mexican drug cartel.
As the film progresses toward its explosive conclusion, the level of tension and violence — both actual and potential — becomes a bit hard to take. Every encounter is life-or-death, with precious little downtime for Brian and Mike to simply eat doughnuts. Discoveries of mass graves, duct-taped children and enslaved immigrants build toward a climax that opens — opens! — with an officer who’s been stabbed in the eye with a knife.
It’s powerful stuff, but I almost felt like I needed an intermission.
Thankfully, Ayer allows Brian and Mike some time to simply talk. The exploration of their friendship, which has been forged under the most difficult of circumstances, is deep and ultimately convincing. “End of Watch” is a buddy-cop film, with the emphasis on the “buddy.”
On the down side, it’s also yet another movie utilizing the “found footage” gimmick that’s all the current rage. Much of the film consists of shaky, hand-held images purportedly shot by Brian for a filmmaking class he’s taking. Even the villains are of the YouTube generation, bringing a video camera along for a drive-by. It’s an unnecessary distraction from the story, which is a good one.
Yes, Ayer rubs our noses in some pretty grisly business, but only in service of a larger point about the necessity and honor of law enforcement. “I am the police,” Brian says in the film’s slightly pretentious voiceover narration, “and I make a difference.”
That’s true, but that’s not Ayer’s only point. The best thing about “End of Watch” is not the action, but the inaction.