Both of these guys are at the top of their game here.

End of Watch is a movie that probably shouldn’t work. Functioning as a piece of pro-Cop quasi-propaganda, it is a counter to the myriad corrupt cop movies, shows, etc that get made every year. Especially about the LAPD. More than this, it’s the style of the film that is a risk. Shot as a pseudo-found footage movie, not dissimilar from Chronicle but with even less internal justification, there’s tons of handheld and “shaky cam” in End of Watch which tends to get knee-jerk backlash from filmgoers. Finally, End of Watch has an unusual structure that overturns its action-movie feel and replaces it with the makings of a character-focused drama, one that spends a lot of time “between” the plotting. This seems like an approach that would strain the patience of people used to convention but turns out to be the film’s greatest strength aside from the charismatic central performances of Jake Gylenhaal and Michael Pena.

Somehow, End of Watch eclipses its own building blocks and snuck up on me. It’s one of the big surprises of 2012, almost entirely due to its candor and ability to kick expectations in the ass to deliver something heartfelt, gritty, and redefining for a genre as familiar as any.

Taylor may seem like the angry cop stereotype at first, but he’s much more than that. Still fierce, though.

One of the impressions you’ll come away with is that you could watch a movie of just Gylenhaal and Pena hanging out as these characters and it would be time well spent. End of Watch is actually more that movie than anything else, and it is this that builds all the good will and audience empathy required to make the story and ending work. This is, at its most basic level, a take on the bond between men of violence trope that is common in police movies but can also be found in army movies, etc. It’s a bromance, in other words, but one that we are seeing at its peak rather than in its development. Again and again you’re struck with how likable these guys are. When you first see them, it’s footage of their gung-ho gunfight with a couple of thugs they run off the road during a chase. They are immediately established as cops who might be skirting the lines a bit. As the movie progresses, and we return again and again to scenes of them bantering on patrol or discussing -always in a self-conscious, manly way- their hopes and fears, there’s an overarching sense of how these are just two really good guys who want to make a difference, love what they do, and are only thrill-seekers to the extent one would have to be to approach dangerous policework with any kind of enthusiasm.

While the movie does concern itself with one of their adventures in particular, it is allowed to unfold alongside all the day to day stuff they get up to. Whether its saving kids from a fire or earning the respect of gang members for playing them fairly, the two of them get up to a lot of stuff that is separate from the core plot. Every now and then, the movie returns us to Big Evil (Maurice Compte) and his crew of cartoonish wannabes. These guys are dangerous because they are desperate to prove how legit they are. They are stupid because they’ll do things like kill cops on behalf of other parties, in this case a cartel with whom Taylor and Zavala (Gylenhaal and Pena respectively) get jammed up with by being a little too proactive in their duties.

Big Evil is called Big Evil because his Evil is big. Because wit.

The cartoon thugs only work when you realize that their stupidity is part of the point. The cartel, dangerous as they are even to police, operates on a much higher level than gunning down a couple of beat cops just for stumbling onto some of their darker shit. That the cartel wants Taylor and Zavala dead is actually kind of hard to buy, but then I guess there’s a sense that they are trying to keep their operations quiet in L.A. which Taylor and Zavala make impossible. A message needs to get sent or something. I guess.

Anyways, Big Evil and his coterie come in and out of the movie to foreshadow the violent climax where they lure and ambush our heroes. This is where the movie comes out fully as a piece of coproganda (not a criticism). When Taylor and Zavala seem the most fucked, it’s the shared loyalty and bond of the police that rises up both literally and symbolically to even things out.

Led by Frank Grillo’s “Sarge” (he’s having a good couple years with this, Warrior and especially The Grey), the other cops are also a big part of the movie. A pair of female partners, played by America Ferrera and Cody Horn (stinking the place up, but only barely as she gets very little screentime) are around. As is Van Hauser (David Harbour) who warns Taylor and Zavala of the consequences of their adrenaline-fueled, gunfighter approach to policing. These people fill out the movie and add colour and character. There are no bad cops in End of Watch but there are definitely a variety of them.

Anna Kendrick’s boobs guest star.

A significant portion of the movie is also spent on Taylor and Zavala’s relationships. Zavala is married with a kid, and Taylor meets and marries Janet (Anna Kendrick) over the course of the film. Though both Janet and Zavala’s wife Gabby (Natalie Martinez) could have just been window dressing, they are allowed to be full characters. They are actually a pretty good example of how this movie uses its secondary characters to both invest in the central element, Taylor and Zavala as partners and friends, and take breaks from it in a way that is not important to the plot of the film but is crucial to its themes and emotional payoffs.

Inevitably, End of Watch has tons in common with David Ayer’s (writing and directing) other films. It won’t surprise people to know that this is the guy who wrote stuff like Training Day, Harsh Times (I thought of that one a lot during End of Watch), or Dark Blue. The guy who directed Street Kings, maaan. In short, Ayer is preoccupied with LAPD stories and has spent a significant amount of time on the ones about bad cops. I guess it was about time he got around to telling one about the good guys. End of Watch is easily the best of his movies aside from Training Day, owed in no small part to the charisma engine driven by Gylenhaal and Pena. Without them, this movie would fall apart under the burden of its stylistic concerns, somewhat heavy-handed message (cops=good), and the familiarity of its genre.

Zavala plays a lot ofMirror’s Edge. Disarming mofos is a science.

The main stylistic focus of End of Watch is that faux found-footage thing. A lot of the movie is presented as being recorded by someone. Not only Taylor, recording things as part of an elective film studies project he never mentions again, but also by the criminals. When necessary, the movie drops this element altogether but retains the basic guerrilla flavor of the filmmaking. In other words, it’s not married to having every bit of what we see explainable as being recorded by someone, somewhere. Instead, it’s just a detail, something about Taylor that contributes to the style of the film. That style, now most commonly used to evoke grit and realism in movies, grounds everything else and is maybe the backbone of the movie. The levity in the central partnership, the cartoon elements, the contrived cartel bit… all of this would confuse the tone of the movie were it not for the realism rendered by its style.

If it seems like I’m describing a bit of a mess, it’s because I am. End of Watch is the product of an insane alchemy. It should have been lead, but it’s gold. I mean, there’s plenty of lead mixed in there as well, but Ayer has been at this long enough, apparently, to refine the good stuff even when he’s being a tad experimental (as he definitely is here).

This movie has a dark and troubling ending, one which sidesteps the burden of cliche (it is one) by building so much good will with everything that comes before. Good luck making it through it without swallowing a few lumps. You’ll see it coming but it won’t matter.

Things get grim, dark, and unhappy before long.