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End of Watch a gritty, must-see cops saga
Michael Pena, left, and Jake Gyllenhaal star in a scene from "End of Watch." - photo by Scott Garfield

‘End of Watch’

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Peña, Anna Kendrick, Natalie Martinez, Frank Grillo

Rated: R, for strong violence, some disturbing images, pervasive language including sexual references, and some drug use

Runtime: 1 hour, 49 minutes

Bottom line: A must-see for action fans

“End of Watch” is the most intense cop drama to hit wide release in quite some time. Considering its writer/director’s past work, that shouldn’t be surprising.

David Ayer wrote the screenplays for “U-571,” “Training Day,” “Dark Blue” and “S.W.A.T.,” among others, and directed “Harsh Times” and “Street Kings,” which was based on a James Ellroy story.

With the release of “End of Watch,” it’s time to recognize Ayer as one of the heavyweights of tough guy cinema.

Ayer brings an extreme realism to this exploration of life as an L.A. cop on a beat, which is both the best and worst quality of the movie.
Brian (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike (Michael Peña) are the hotshots of their precinct. They’re young, tough and smart. They believe in their mission to protect the people while also respecting the rules of the street.

They are not cliché rebel cop characters (they bear no resemblance to Dirty Harry or Popeye Doyle), but they are willing to violate regulations if it means saving a life.

They are also played by two exceptional actors. Let’s face it, a lot of action movies are undone simply by a lack of acting talent. When the movie needs a dramatic scene to give it a sense of gravity, the actors fail.

No such problem here. Gyllenhaal’s acting chops are beyond question by now, and Peña has become one of the best character actors in the business.

Their chemistry together makes it absolutely believable that these two are not only partners but blood brothers.

The movie pits these tightly bound partners against some of the deadliest criminals in L.A., and every story beat is delivered with exacting plausibility. The most disturbing thing about “End of Watch” is that all of these crimes do happen in real life, often even more brutally than how they are shown in the film.

The movie spends a great deal of time veering away from the main storyline, though, to give us a sense of the daily lives of two cops on one of the most dangerous beats in America.

Gyllenhaal and Peña are surprisingly funny together as they banter between calls, but then they provide the punch the movie needs when those calls turn out to be horrific situations.

The action sequences are all outstanding, too. Ayer paces them perfectly, ratcheting up the tension and holding us there until Brian and Mike resolve the situation.

Unfortunately, all of these winning qualities are undercut by Ayer’s decision to film the movie in a way that blends reality television and found footage styles.

Brian is taking some college classes, one of which is a filmmaking elective. So he totes around a camcorder and wears a lapel camera as part of a class project. The conceit of the movie, then, is that everything we’re seeing was captured on amateur video.

Aside from being a tired style at this point, the movie has to strain beyond believability to stick to it.

Ayer periodically shifts away from Brian and Mike to a local gang who will play a major role in the main story. It’s necessary and effective to show us these scenes with the Curbside gang, but in order to maintain the amateur video style, Ayer has one of the gang members wielding a camera the whole time just like Brian.

So, for instance, while the gang does a drive-by shooting, we’re supposed to believe that the gang member would still be filming. But Ayer also uses other camera angles that couldn’t possibly be caught on that amateur video camera, so he doesn’t stick to his own stylistic rules anyway.

And as great as Gyllenhaal and Peña are together, the movie spends far more time than necessary establishing how close Brian and Mike’s bonds are.

The visual style of “End of Watch” is hugely flawed, but its story is told with such urgency and authenticity that action fans should be willing to forgive its stylistic crimes.

Jeff Marker teaches film and literature at Gainesville State College. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on