Cop movies are a tough genre to execute, not only in the fully macho sense of the word, but in the manner that they can be either too tedious or too preachy as they depict lives affected (and frequently ruined) by law breaking, violence, and a lust for power. (Check out the new Dredd for a superficial but foreboding spin on what it means to be law enforcement, judge, jury, and executioner). It is with a deep sense of relief, then, that I can pronounce End of Watch as one of the best cop movies to have emerged from the Hollywood stables in a long, long time. This is a movie that is self-aware but never overly conscious of what it is or where it is going.
The plot details the daily battles and relationship of two California officers, Zavala (Michael Pena) and Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose daily beat is to police a region of Southern California with a largley immigrant Latino population which lives under the shadow of Mexican drug cartels. (Note to Hollywood writers: we get it – Mexican drug cartels are a danger, but please give the Latinos something else to be bothered by. The “Papers Please” law in Arizona is much more sinister). The story follows a relatively familiar route of buddy-and-cop movies with subplots that involve Zavala’s wife (Natalie Martinez) and Taylor’s girlfriend (Anna Kendrick). But mostly, the fearless twosome spend their days playing detective as they try to piece together who (or what) is behind the many crimes in their district.
To be sure, this is a movie, and as such there are far too many gun duels and car chases for one pair of cops to possibly encounter, but we suspend disbelief because the movie works so well at depicting not only the relationship between Zavala and Taylor, but how being a police officer affects every other facet and relationship of an officer’s life. They live and breathe the slow murmur of waiting violence and disruption, only to find their lives upended and destroyed by the communities that they live to protect. It’s a thankless and difficult job, and few can imagine why anyone would want to make their livelihood this way.
The performances are excellent, especially Michale Pena as Zavala, who plays his part with the right mixture of muscle and vulnerability. Gyllenhaal is mercifully restrained in his role, toning down his typical ‘boy-in-a-man’s-body’ act to give a truly nuanced and layered performance. Both of their portrayals really make this movie soar.