Police are often referred to as “the thin blue line,” the only thing separating anarchy from civilization. In recent years (perhaps decades?), we’ve seen this line become blurred, wherein the actions of police have spurred outrage and often led to something resembling anarchy. From the Chicago woman who was illegally strip-searched in 2013, to the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri just a month ago, and all the way back to 1991 with the brutal L.A.P.D. beating of Rodney King, public sentiment regarding the police has arguably never been lower in the United States of America. “End of Watch” represents the antithesis of that, albeit a violent one in its own right. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena are two street cops patrolling the South Central region of Los Angeles…so they’re basically soldiers fighting in a war. Guns, drugs, money. Those are the three keys to success for a cop on the streets of South Central L.A., where the influence and violence spurred by Mexican drug cartels has begun to metriculate. Officers Taylor and Zavala have no time for lazy bureacracy and no mind for excessive force, as evidenced in one particularly brutal scene when Gyllenhaal’s Taylor walks up on a rookie officer being beaten to within an inch of her life by a thug. He puts the man in handcuffs and calls back-up and paramedics to the scene, handling the situation like a professional. However, Taylor’s questioned afterwards as to why he didn’t simply shoot the perp on site. Taylor has no answer. Him and Zavala are true heroes, even if they don’t feel like it.
“Found footage” is undoubtedly a gimmick, but it’s a gimmick that can be effective if used correctly, which it is here, with director David Ayer cutting between dash-cams, security cameras, and Taylor’s own handy-cam as he conducts a documentary for his morning film class. And when the occasion calls for it, Ayer scraps the gimmick in favor of good old-fashioned gritty shaky-cam. Between a warehouse that’s evidently ground zero for human trafficking in South Central, or a house full of dismembered human bodies, you get the feeling that these cops are operating on the front line of that razor’s edge separating anarchy from civilization. Indeed, “End of Watch” works best when it’s focused on Taylor and Zavala’s cameraderie and how these men grapple with the horror they’re increasingly bearing witness to in their day-to-day, not to mention the sobering possibility of leaving their significant others (played by Anna Kendrick and Natalie Martinez, respectively) as single mothers were they to succumb to these horrors. Gyllenhaal and Pena have genuine chemistry and they infuse their characters with the sort of charm that can only spell doom for one or the both of them. Gotta build that empathy before the fall, right? That’s where Ayer’s fourth foray into the genre falters slightly. These hero cops are inevitably targeted by the cartels, and the climactic showdown between them, as well as ensuing consequences, is predictable to say the least. Perhaps if the impending tragedy resulted in more than a tearful coda, perhaps if the audience were treated to more “there” there than a vague ode to the boys in blue of our country, the aforementioned tragedy would carry more heft. By no means a ruinous curtain-jerker, the ending nonetheless prevents a good movie from becoming a great one.