UNTIL NOW, filmmaker David Ayer has been a bad-cop, bad-cop kind of guy.
His screenplays for "Training Day," "Dark Blue" and "Harsh Times" explored the psychology of the rogue officer with gusto; his "Street Kings" (adapted from James Ellroy's hard-boiled script) did the same.
Now comes "End of Watch," where Ayer works the good-cop side of the street for the first time, casting Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena as Los Angeles police patrol officers Taylor and Zavala, partners who are as close as brothers with an on-the-job chemistry that makes them effective, decorated police officers.
If not always strictly professional. One key sequence finds Zavala taking a parolee's dare to take off his badge and fight man-to-man, not man-to-cop - it violates protocol, but adds immeasurably to their credibility on the street.
"End of Watch" has the feel of something pieced together from choice cop lore, heir to the Joseph Wambaugh tradition - a ride-along that allows us to see things only patrol officers see, gory and disturbing as they may be.
Layered on top of this are explorations of the two men's lives - they talk about wives and girlfriends, we get to meet them (Natalie Martinez, Anna Kendrick). The officers emerge as fully formed men, adding to the life-and-death suspense of their high-risk jobs.
Ayer clearly wants to kick up the naturalism here, and to that end employs a gimmick - much of what we see is dash-cam footage, augmented with minicam recordings Taylor purports to be shooting for a college class.
This barely works as a conceit, and grows borderline ridiculous when the script detours from Zavala and Taylor to follow their most persistent adversaries - a drug gang (an unfortunate nod to caricature) that inexplicably videotapes its crimes and conspiracies.
There are tonal problems, too. Ayer makes movies that throb with an ultra-pulp energy. That's certainly true of "End of Watch," and it's at odds with his bid for documentary realism.
On the other hand, he's greatly aided by the lively back-and-forth and convincing camaraderie between Gyllenhaal and Pena, the latter a superb character actor ("World Trade Center," "Shooter") who gets a full share of screen time (and is the lead in the now-filming Cesar Chavez biopic).
He's way more than a sidekick here. Ayer's script delves deeply, and evenhandedly, into Zavala's character, his Mexican-American culture, its place in the city's mosaic. This has been a feature of Ayer's work from the get-go.
Ayer grew up in South Central Los Angeles, and has made the changing L.A. melting pot a theme and subject of his work dating to his script for "The Fast and the Furious" (2001). It helps make "End of Watch" a lively, vivid piece of work.
Contact movie critic Gary Thompson at 215-854-5992 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at philly.com/KeepItReel.
REVIEW | 1/2
End Of Watch
DIRECTED BY DAVID AYER. WITH JAKE GYLLENHAAL, MICHAEL PENA, NATALIE MARTINEZ, ANNA KENDRICK, FRANK GRILLO, CODY HORN, AMERICA FERRERA. DISTRIBUTED BY OPEN ROAD FILMS.
RUNNING TIME: 108 MINUTES
PARENT'S GUIDE: R (VIOLENCE, LANGUAGE)
PLAYING AT: AREA THEATERS