Screenwriter/Director David Ayer has mastered the minutiae of the Los Angeles cop-movie subgenre better than anyone else I can think of. He penned the dazzlingly dastardly Training Day and the underrated Dark Blue, and helmed the bloody Street Kings – all of which were above-average (often way above average) portrayals of fragmenting machismo on both sides of the badge. End of Watch feels closest to Training Day, albeit with a bit of faux documentary footage thrown in to spice up what might have been seen as yet another buddy cop flick.
End of Watch is more than the sum of its parts, though; it ends on a downbeat note, but that's something I've come to expect from Ayer. What makes this film better is the obvious camaraderie between LAPD partners, Zavala (Peña) and Taylor (Gyllenhaal). The former is married with kids and the latter is a high-strung Marine fresh from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Ayer throws us into their daily grind – and at times it is, indeed, a workaday affair – just after they've been tossed into the slipstream of violence and thuggery that is Southeast L.A. following the shooting of a suspect. Cleared of any wrongdoing, their braggadocio quotient is high, much to the resentment of an elder veteran cop (Harbour) and a pair of stridently by-the-book female officers (Ferrera and Horn).
Back on the street, Taylor videotapes cop life in haltingly cinema verité style. (He's taking a filmmaking class and this, he explains, is his project.) Interestingly, a group of hyperviolent street gangbangers is engaged in exactly the same sort of small-screen self-promotion, wantonly running amok with their own cameras rolling. Eventually, the two sides, law and lawlessness, collide. This being an Ayer film, the result isn't pretty, but it is wholly believable. Gyllenhaal and Peña go beyond the cardboard cutouts that so many cop films these days seem made of, and cinematographer Roman Vasyanov makes the harsh California daylight seem like a bad vibe unto itself.