End of Watch, Training Day writer David Ayer’s third directorial effort after Harsh Times and Street Kings, is being advertised as a violent, aggressive movie that pits cops against cartels. To a certain extent, it is that: forks are shoved in eyes, cops go toe to toe with gang-bangers, and gold-plated guns are confiscated from vehicles. But those elements of the movie exist mostly to sell a much more subtle and interesting picture, a story about an exceedingly close friendship between two cops that also helps shift police dramas away from the monochromatic relationship between black cops and white cops and between white cops and black communities.
The cops in question are Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña), who we meet shortly after they’re cleared in a shooting incident and return to their work patrolling the streets of South Central Los Angeles. Rather than being detectives or the leaders of special squads, Brian and Mike are beat cops, a designation that means most of what they have to do is mosey around in their police cruiser in between minor bouts of community management and small acts of heroism—Mike fights a cantankerous older gang banger who’s been harassing his mailman to get the man to stop and charges into a burning building to rescue two young children, with Brian right behind him. Their stops in various Los Angeles homes veer between humor and horror, from the fisticuffs to the discovery of illegal immigrants locked in a back room. But their conversations, frequently about women, are the best part of the movie.
Mike is married to Gabby, his high school girlfriend, who he credits with marching him off to the police academy in the first place. And while he jokes with Brian that what Brian really needs is to find someone who will cook and won’t sleep with his friends and occasionally makes fun of Brian for complaining about being single and sexually successful, Mike clearly loves his wife, telling Brian “I don’t want to be with anyone else.” Brian has more direction and education than his partner does: a former Marine, when we meet him, he’s taking an elective film class as part of his pre-law courses. And his discontent with his dating life stems from a desire for a real connection. “First date: dinner and a respectful kiss,” Brian tells Mike. “Second date: dinner and full carnal knowledge. Third date: dinner and awkward silences when I try to talk about anything of merit.” End of Watch may be a tough-guy movie, but it’s one that argues that strength and tenderness aren’t incompatible, and that really loving a woman is more fun and more honorable than suffering through the company of one you couldn’t possibly respect.
When Brian finds that woman, a smart, sweet scientist named Janet (an excellent Anna Kendrick), it’s Mike he turns to for a model. Peña’s been a cop before, in Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, a role that similarly emphasized his character’s relationship with his family over action. There, he was Will Jimeno, an officer new to the Port Authority police force, who finds himself trapped under the rubble of the North Tower on September 11 with a senior officer, John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage). It’s the memory of Jimeno’s heavily pregnant wife Allison (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who spends the day alternating between Will’s family and her own, that helps him keep talking and alive as they wait for rescue. In End of Watch, Mike provides Brian, who seems unmoored in the expanse of Los Angeles, with a surrogate family. Brian may joke about the number of quinceañeras Mike drags him to, but he takes Janet to one on an early date, behaving beautifully to the birthday girl, joining the family on the floor for the Macarena. At Janet and Brian’s wedding, Mike promises to take care of Janet, and Gabby gives Janet a primer on how to build a successful marriage with a cop. It’s not Mike’s streetwise instincts or some sort of flashy, violent charisma, like Alonzo Harris’s in Training Day, that bind him and Brian so closely together: it’s his sense of how to maintain a family, to be a solid, stable man, that makes Brian turn to Mike for guidance.
That subtlety doesn’t characterize the section of the film that follows the Latino gang members who end up Mike and Brian’s antagonists through a series of little confrontations—a noise complaint, a traffic stop, Brian’s hunches—rather than by conspiracy or aggressive escalation. There are glints of humor in a argument between a young cop, Orozco (America Ferrera) and one of the gang members, heated by unspoken but implied lesbianism on both sides, or Brian’s asking another gang member why he goes by the name Big Evil. But watching the gang members psych themselves up for a hit in a profanity-laced tirade that has none of the cleverness of Bunk and McNulty investigating a murder in The Wire has none of the charm of watch Brian pretend to be a Latina teenager and to have Mike respond by mocking the white, yuppie girls, Brian goes out with. I understand the desire to make sure that the gang subplot doesn’t step on the relationship between Mike and Brian that is the real core of the movie, but the gap between Ayer’s innovations within the cop format and his by-the-numbers portrait of Mexican gangs and the cartels that sometimes pull their strings is obvious.
And at the conclusion of End of Watch, the movie becomes more what it was advertised to be than what it actually, and compellingly, mostly is. I could watch Gyllenhaal and Peña tool around in a car for two hours, talking each other into manhood. But studios will have their blood and bullets. And giving it to them to keep the two men mostly at the center of the frame and in the front seat of their cruiser is worth the tradeoff.