A Police Story
People dislike cops. It’s a sad but true trend in public opinion. Cops are the ones who break up parties, give speeding tickets, and haul people off to jail. In the ’60s, the incident of Rodney King incited nationwide rage against law enforcement. Films like Dog Day Afternoon furthered the sentiment by delivering an unflattering portrait of police conduct. Even in superhero movies, cops are rarely anything but incompetent, mere shark bait for the villain to dispose of until some populist hero soars in to save the day. To many, the police bring trouble rather than security, a faceless wall of authoritative oppression whose flashing sirens are harbingers of
David Ayer’s End of Watch shatters this notion magnificently. It brings us so close to the daredevil lifestyle of two cops in one of the most dangerous cities in the U.S. that we are viscerally and emotionally swayed into seeing the police in a new light. Even those who were appreciative of cops to begin with will feel the jolt of reality in the movie’s scenes which, though dramatized, are completely convincing in the way they recreate the danger-stricken world of an officer on the job.
Shot documentary-style through an assortment of surveillance cameras, camcorders, and police recording equipment, the film boasts a nerve-shredding immediacy that magnifies our sense of proximity with the characters and their experiences. It does for South Central Los Angeles what The Hurt Locker did for modern day Iraq. Though much closer to home, the streets of this crime-ridden city are as much a warzone as the most unstable Middle Eastern locales, one braved day-in and day-out by the men and women of the LAPD. Ayer’s film is less about police on patrol than soldiers in the field, unsung heroes who go through hell to keep the rest of us safe and secure in our homes.
Though it centers on two officers, the movie’s structure is largely episodic, acclimating us to the rhythms of the LAPD’s daily work. Their job is scarily volatile. Foreboding assignments can turn up nothing, while seemingly harmless ones can erupt in blood and gunfire. All of it is presented in harrowing detail, disallowing us escape from the film’s uncompromising environment. “You have to be brave to marry a police officer,” a character remarks at one point. After watching End of Watch, I could think of no truer statement. These people live their life on the edge, facing imminent death with nothing but a gun in their hand and a Kevlar vest strapped to their chest.
But they also have each other, and that’s something the movie really hits home. End of Watch reminds us of the human face behind the badge, and the powerful solidarity that exists among members of the police force. This is made possible through the film’s two lead performances by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña as partners in the LAPD. Gyllenhaal plays his character with a fierce, edgy focus that eliminates all memory of the actor’s more docile roles, while Peña oscillates between charming imp and headstrong warrior with ease and personality. Both make us believe in their characters as complex, flesh-and-blood people that transcend the color of their uniforms and the sentimental clichés of the cop-film subgenre.
But it’s together that the two really work their magic. Powered by a streetwise screenplay written by Ayer himself (he scripted Training Day), they redefine the “buddy cop” dynamic to describe a deep, heartfelt camaraderie between two friends and brothers in arms. Their often very funny dialogue is candid and crude in a way that reveals how close they are with one another. Conversations slide from banter to serious, intimate discussion almost seamlessly, demonstrating a level of trust that allows them to speak their emotions as they are feeling them. When one says to the other, “I’ll lay down my life for you,” we immediately believe him.
It’s this attitude of gritty compassion, both for its individual characters and the police as a whole, that makes End of Watch so compelling. The entire movie can be summed up in its opening voiceover monologue, which begins with a rousing assertion of the police officer’s mission (“I may disagree with the law but I will enforce it”), continues by humanizing him (“I bleed, I think, I love, and yes I can be killed”) and ends with a rallying cry that unites the police into a single entity that is nonetheless fiercely devoted to each and every one of its parts (“We stand watch together”). The whole thing rings with a stripped-down poetry, an anthem to the courage and dedication of some of America’s finest. It’s End of Watch in a nutshell, and it hits like a round of bullets.