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.