The day to day lives of two uniformed police officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena) are captured by multiple cameras, as Brian claims to be making a documentary for his film class. The two investigate reports of local disturbances in dangerous neighborhoods and accidentally discover a series of gruesome crime scenes that point to powerful suspects at large with dubious connections.
While finding one shocking discovery after another, they maintain strong social lives after work, in which Mike’s wife Gabby (a scene stealing Natalie Martinez) is expecting a baby and Brian is committing to a serious relationship with his dream girl (Anna Kendrick). As their investigation gets scarier, they realize how much danger they’ve put themselves in.
Here’s the first “found footage” cop movie, an angle that the movie plays fast and loose with, as many scenes are captured by hand held cameras, while other moments couldn’t have been captured by anyone but the film’s cinematographer. But I liked the always enjoyable give and take between the two leads so much that I was able to forgive the found footage angle, which comes across more like a gimmick than an innovation the movie really needs.
The first-person point of view scenes do little beyond making this feel like an R-rated episode of Cops. Gyllenhaal’s opening narration, about the life of a police officer and living on “the thin blue line” is so familiar that you expect Inner Circle’s “Bad Boys” to start pounding on the soundtrack.
What’s refreshing and downright bold is that, in addition to Gyllenhaal and Pena giving such commanding and surprisingly funny performances, the movie is actually on their side. These aren’t just good cops, they’re great cops. I can’t remember the last time I saw a film portray law enforcers who came across as believable, likable, heroic and recognizably human. After years of movies about corrupt policemen or super cops like John McClane and Riggs and Murtaugh, here’s a movie about two police officers who share a brotherly love for one another that matches their love for the job.
Gyllenhaal has been exceptional in art films for years but this film, along with Source Code, reminds one how at ease and charismatic he can be in a Hollywood movie. Pena, one of my favorite character actors and outstanding in films ranging from World Trade Center to Crash, is typically first-rate and shares a potent chemistry with his co-star. It’s to the film’s credit that the women aren’t just background figures, as Kendrick and especially Martinez stand out, particularly in a hilariously raunchy scene where Gabby drunkenly gives her best friends an earful of X-rated bedroom advice.
The villains are less interesting and fill the clichés you’d expect from an urban action movie, but the story around them is surprising. Without giving anything away, the ending is so brave and unconventional that you can feel the filmmakers shy away from it by adding a closing scene the film doesn’t need.
Not one of the great cop movies, but the story will draw you in, especially as the scope of the investigation becomes greater than either officer anticipated. Flaws and all, this works as an action movie, though the colorful banter Gyllenhaall and Pena trade while on the job, matched with their willingness to do their job fearlessly without hesitation, is what will stay with me.
End of Watch
★ ★ ★
Rated R / 109 Min.