If you're someone who complains about how movies don't understand what it's like to be a cop, you should see End of Watch. Writer/director David Ayer's manages to convey a lot about the day-to-day existence that goes with the job: how the men and women who serve deal with each other, how they work their way through the bureaucratic crap that goes with the gig, how unusual and surprising the violence actually is when it breaks up the routine of the job.
Ayer might not be the guy you'd expect to make this movie, since he's worked on three of the best LAPD dirty cop movies ever. Training Day (script by Ayer) won Denzel Washington an Academy Award. Dark Blue (script by Ayer, story by legendary crime novelist James Ellroy) features a killer Kurt Russell performance and what's possibly the best movie representation of Ellroy's jaundiced worldview. Street Kings (directed by Ayer, screenplay by Ellroy) is almost as good and features the best Keanu Reeves performance of the last decade.
As good as those movies are, it's hard to imagine rank-and-file members of the department enjoy an endless parade of movies that concentrate on the dark side. End of Watch feels like a conscious attempt to show the other side of the LAPD, a thank you note to all the men and women who certainly helped Ayer with the research behind his other movies.
The movie sets us a premise where Jake Gyllenhaal's Officer Brian Taylor is lugging around an HD video camera so we get a lot of documentary-style footage of the cops. Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña (as Office Mike Zavala) bring an amazing low-key chemistry to their partnership. The scenes that capture the mundane parts of the job and their off-duty social are the best part of the movie, situations that give the characters a kind of dignity and humanity you don't often get in a Hollywood cop movie.
Peña might be best know for his comic performances in Eastbound & Down, Observe & Report or Tower Heist, but he absolutely nails the opportunity here with a performance that should create all kinds of new opportunities for him. David Harbour is especially good as Van Hauser, a cop struggling with office politics, and Anna Kendrick and Natalie Martinez give beautifully understated performances as the cops' wives.
The action shows up late in the movie with a plot about the Mexican drug cartels operating as a paramilitary force in SoCal. You'll forget the details of that five minutes after you leave the theatre but the character details might stick with you for a long, long time.
Don't just take it from me. Check out what LAPD officers had to say after an advance screening: