Jack Webb was a pioneer in offering the cop-buddy format in crime drama presentations, first with his Joe Friday-and-partner gigs in the radio and television productions of “Dragnet,” and later as the driving force behind “Adam-12.”
Most of the time these days, the cop-buddy element is used effectively in comedies, but as “End of Watch” demonstrates, it also can embellish the story in serious dramas.
“End of Watch” is propelled by pitch-perfect chemistry between Jake Gyllenhaal and Michel Pena in the lead roles. Gyllenhaal is Brian Taylor and Pena is Mike Zavala, street cop partners in LAPD, working the tough South Central Los Angeles beat.
They are also best friends — and see themselves as brothers — who will cover each other’s backs. They are able to kid each other with insensitive comments about their cultural differences, knowing they also share many passions and a mutual respect.
Taylor, who is also studying law, is the loose cannon of the duo, sometimes overstepping his bounds that can have him butting heads with authority. Zavala, affectionately known as Z, is more conventional. He is a family man, tuned into his responsibilities as a husband and father as well as being an efficient police officer.
Writer-director David Ayer, who has explored the law enforcement world before with his screenplays “Training Day” and “S.W.A.T.,” captures the tone and mood of police work, presenting the personality conflicts, the mischief and pranks and the grim and macabre humor employed that help these people cope. But the gems in Ayer’s script are the exchanges between Taylor and Z as they discuss life and love and their police work.
Taylor, who is taking a film class, carries a video camera with him at all times, giving “End of Watch” that recovered-footage look that can add a touch of realism while also being an annoying gimmick. Ayer also uses the standard police unit-mounted cameras to present point of views.
There is a lot of humor in the movie, mostly provided by the Taylor-Z exchanges, but also adding touching and funny moments are the women in their lives. Z has been married for years to Gabby (Natalie Martinez), who gets a key moment in providing candid and explicit love-making tips to Taylor and his bride. Anna Kendrick is Janet, who captures Taylor’s heart after his seemingly endless forays into relationships that he insists never get past a third date. Kendrick gets to shine in a scene when she covertly records herself in a monologue on Taylor’s video camera and later showing some great moves on the dance floor during her and Brian’s wedding reception.
While there is a light tone interspersed throughout “End of Watch,” a cloud of apprehension hangs over it. These two officers are in the line of fire daily, and their police work has upset the operations of a local outlet of a Mexican drug cartel, putting them in the target sights of these people. This is a drama and the element of violent death lurks in the background.
Gyllenhaal, with a nearly shaved head, is very convincing as the ex-Marine Taylor, physically adept and driven, but also a person who wants to savor the rewarding aspects of life like the kind of marriage enjoyed by Z and Gabby, along with fatherhood.
Pena has been one of my favorite actors the last decade or so. He has made me laugh with his comedic and goofy performances in movies like “Observe and Report” and “Tower Heist,” and has put in a lump in my throat with his dramatic work in “Crash,” “Babel” and “World Trade Center.” He really gets the best lines in “End of Watch” and his Z is a tower of keen observations, dedication and loyalty.
“End of Watch’ has the viewers experiencing various emotions. There are the funny moments and poignant ones, along with violence and tragedy and absolute rage and disgust at some of the nastier characters. This is a wrenching movie, however, that can leave you drained — these two cops will stick with you long after you depart the theater.