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What to Watch: Watching Your Six in ‘End of Watch’ (2012)

End of Watch is a 2012 action/crime about two Los Angeles police officers who deal with the ups and downs on the patrol beat while unwittingly uncovering something they may not be able to handle.

Brothers don’t let each other wander in the dark alone. The dark is anything and everything. In End of Watch, the 2012 action/crime, the dark is—specifically—the patrol, and the everyday ins and outs of partners in Los Angeles Police Department. Each moment could be an officer’s last, and a partner can be the difference in living to see another day, or being put in the ground six feet under.

THE STORY: Officers and best friends Mike “Z” Zavala (Michael Pena), and Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal), make a strong and morally sound tandem in the Newton division of the Los Angeles Police Department. Their unbreakable bond for one another is the natural result of so much shared time in the squad car, locker room, crime incidents, and more. Everything and anything from sex and marriage to race and upbringing is discussed.

To fulfill an assignment for film class, Brian decides to film their daily grind through camcorder and small cameras attached to their uniforms, making for unique point-of-views. While going through common disturbances, gang matters and house fires, a routine car stop and big-time arrest by the two ends up putting them on a treacherous road that stretches well beyond the unfriendly criminal scum of Los Angeles.

End of Watch, 2012 © Exclusive Media Group

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: It’s easy to see the poster of End of Watch and immediately see it as a nondescript, run-of-the-mill cop movie. To a small extent, it is, but that is a very, very small extent. End of Watch is a thrilling and emotional day-in-the-life portrait of those who protect and serve.

Is there embellishment? Sure. But it says a lot that most police officers have praised the movie highly for its realism. David Ayer writes and directs here, and he’s a man who has infinite experience with the police genre and South Central in cinema, contributing in some writer/director capacity to S.W.A.T, Harsh Times, Street Kings, and Training Day. End of Watch makes those films look like play things, beginning with an introspective monologue by Gyllenhaal’s character that leads into one of the best opening sequences, ever.

There’s a level of grit and authenticity that films in this genre rarely achieve. The work that went into getting all the details sound isn’t lost. Ayer’s point-of-view heavy camerawork isn’t flawlessly used (the story reason given by Brian never truly plays into the proceedings), but, it does break down the barrier between movie and audience. As the movie careens towards its conclusion, Ayer shoots many of the scenes in horror fashion with slow reveals, dimly lit interiors/exteriors, and gruesome set pieces.

But really, the chemistry that lead actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña possess stands as some of the greatest ever to appear in a film. The banter between the two is improvised and natural. Over the course of two hours, we get to know these characters and what they’re about, and in turn, watching End of Watch is less like watching a feature and more like watching real events with real characters play out with dangerous stakes. The months of training and field observation pay off amazingly. So many people play cops and don the uniform in films but Gyllenhaal and Peña may be some of the few, if only two, who absolutely give off the feeling like they could go into the force, hit the streets, and make them a safer place. So natural together they are that it is hard to believe that it apparently took some time for the actors to get a feel for each other.

End of Watch
End of Watch, 2012 © Exclusive Media Group

A GREAT MOMENT: Some of the best moments of End of Watch are the simple ones where Brian and Z are cutting up jokes in the squad car, lounging around at a crime scene, or taking drinks at a quinceañera. But, there’s a moment about midway through the runtime that serves as the turning point of the movie.

In this moment, Z and Taylor run into a burning house to save three kids. For it, they get rewarded for their bravery by receiving Medals of Valor. The two “ghetto cowboys” have effectively made it at this point, being recognized as the best of the best in their unit; their bravado and stubbornness showing to be good traits in their careers. However, the bad thing about stubbornness and bravado is that it can lead to trouble. 

Wanting to become a detective, Brian uses a guilt trip on Mike by saying he never should have ran into the house, but he did because they’re brothers and his brother (Mike), owes him one. Since they’re brothers, Brian coerces Mike to follow him into a house that has connections to a bust they made involving a cartel member in possession of heavy artillery, cash, and narcotics. What they find in this house ultimately pushes them down a path of no return.

The scene following the montage of Taylor and Z being honored is a short one that takes place in a convenience store as the duo are cooling off from the LA heat. But, it carries a feeling of “what goes up, must come down.” There’s no way that things can get any better after receiving the medals, and the scene highlights the duo’s negative aspects. For Taylor, he’s manipulative and a little selfish; for Z, he’s a little weak-willed and maybe a little too selfless. It’s telling that the scene ends somewhat fixated on the faces of the two. Z’s face is completely reluctant, while Brian’s face has this creepy, giddy smile of a person who just pulled a fast one. On multiple re-watches, more dialogue stands out, particularly some at a wedding that foreshadows the emotionally charged ending. The ending doesn’t work like it does without these critical scenes of character building and spectacular work by Gyllenhaal and Peña.

THE TALLY: End of Watch is undoubtedly one of the best cop movies ever made, as realistic as a Hollywood-made film can be about the men and women standing watch every day, both surprisingly funny and extremely intense. It’s what to watch.