In “End of Watch,” Jake Gyllenhaal plays a cocky prankster LA cop who takes a camera to work for reasons that amount to nothing, dramatically. One of the Chicano thugs on his beat also has a camera. Their hand-held footage is thrown into a blender with the rest of what the director of photography, Roman Vasyanov, shot and puréed for 109 minutes. The camera is just everywhere, from the point of view of everything. When I left the movie the other night, people complained of seasickness.
It’s a different, better movie than that. Some people will come looking for shoot-outs and craziness — and they’re here. But writer and director David Ayer has written what’s basically a buddy comedy/cop drama. Officers Brian Taylor (Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Peña) sit in pre-shift briefs, they stage pranks, they mouth off to anybody. Mike enters a thug’s house and challenges him to fight. The months of heroic deeds (the drug busts, the child rescues) and good luck (not dying) culminates in a professional worst-case scenario.
Ayer specializes in LAPD potboilers. He’s best known as the writer of “Training Day” (that’s in the marketing, too). Like that movie, the other thrillers he’s directed — “Harsh Times” and “Street Kings” — present psychopathology as side effect of police work. I don’t buy any of them — they’re ridiculously overblown (“Street Kings,” entertainingly so) yet underwritten. Ayer isn’t making social or political points, not interesting or fresh ones, anyway. He’s making movies. “End of Watch” is the first of them to settle into what feels like the true rhythms of police work — the doldrums, the driving, the struggles to stay awake, the smack talk. (This time it’s the criminals who are nuts.)
Mainly though, it’s the bond between Taylor and Zavala that’s the heart of the movie. They mock each other’s cultures. (This is the rare movie happy to treat whiteness as a race.) They talk about their romantic relationships. Taylor has just started dating someone (Anna Kendrick), and Zavala’s been married to the same exuberant woman (Natalie Martinez) his entire adult life. There are 6 million cop shows on television right now. On none of them have I heard two men speak to each other with as much natural affinity as these two. This is the sort of cop movie that works the way romantic dramas do. You have to believe the two stars love each other deeply enough for the finale to affect you.
Gyllenhaal and Peña are two good actors that the movies are still unsure how to use. Gyllenhaal was headed for some kind of major pop, but his talent is not a movie star’s. He’s an intense and studious actor of small, quiet gestures. He’s not an action figure. After “The Prince of Persia,” I hope he understands that. I think Peña can do everything — and pretty much has, every limited thing the movies will allow a young Latin actor to do, of course. He’s one of those wonderful actors, like Kimberly Elise and Thandie Newton, whose talent hasn’t yet found the role that empties the slot machine.
For hours, I could watch him and Gyllenhaal drive around and mix it up with the rest of the cast, which includes America Ferrera, Cody Horn, Frank Grillo, and David Harbor. Ayer seems to know how lucky he is to have them. I just wish he had found a style that really let us appreciate their deceptive ease with his material. But the movie is often a mess of bad camerawork and insecure editing. It settles down eventually, but Ayers never justifies their use. He may have wanted to create an air of disorientation. Maybe he wanted to save money. He succeeded only in making his movie look cheap.