By about halfway through “End of Watch,” when both cops enter a burning house to save the children inside, it has become clear that Officer Zavala, played by Michael Pena, is the true hero of David Ayer’s latest flick, and not Zavala’s partner Officer Taylor, a more calculating character, who is given the insouciant swagger of the uncommitted by top-billed Jake Gyllenhaal.
Taylor on the other hand seems to constantly scan the horizon for what lies beyond. He is preoccupied with video-recording what happens “on the job” for a course in journalism he has enrolled in. This plot device gives Ayer a source of point-of-view images to bolster the movie’s “real feel” while also painting Taylor as more of an outsider, in contrast to Zavala who acts out of respect for family and the thin blue line. Taylor, an ex-marine, shares respect for the latter and acquires respect for the former over the arc of the story.
Through Taylor’s camera lens we see deliberate close-ups of the weapons and ammunition used by the cops. These details are meant to ground the action in reality. “End of Watch” sounds real, too. The politically incorrect banter inside the patrol car is fresh. Zavala mocks his partner for “enjoying your white people shit,” while Taylor reduces his partner’s heritage to an unending series of quinceañera parties.
The contrast between the officers’ wise-ass put downs and the cold-blooded violence happening on the streets is poignant.
"End of Watch" is well paced. The cops grow personally in ways that humanize them, even as the danger of their job escalates. There is plenty of violence but it serves the story, whether introducing us to supporting characters or reinforcing our heroes’ personalities. For example, when hot blooded Zavala with his strong sense of personal honor allows himself to be baited into a brawl with a bad guy, Taylor calmly remains on the sidelines. That also lays the groundwork for a later scene, in which Taylor cuffs an ultra-brutal attacker when deadly force instead might have been used with impunity.
“End of Watch” boasts strong cinematography. The fire rescue scene is surreal as it meshes life-and-death intensity with heroic exhilaration.
In the supporting role of Taylor's fiancée, Anna Kendrick delivers an intuitive, scene-stealing performance.
There is visual variety here as well, including a hip wedding reception that provides a real respite from the evil of the gangs, that is, until a blubbering veteran cop blurts his most painful war story. Here filmmaker Ayer nudges viewers to connect the parable with the film’s narrative, a subtle segue back to the violence and one that foreshadows the movie’s climax and ultimate take away.
Ayers briefly trips up near the end when he seemingly channels "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." But the filmmaker regains his balance and, with a nod to Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction," pulls off his bloody bait and switch and serves up a more meaningful conclusion than the traditional Hollywood happy ending would permit.