The ingredients in the cop drama End of Watch are as routine as a midday traffic stop: Take two buddies in blue patrolling the hard streets of South Central Los Angeles; toss in some tatted-up, foul-mouthed, gun-toting gangstas; and sprinkle liberally with lots of shaky-cam visuals for that sense of cinematic urgency.
Everyone has been served this many times.
But director/writer David Ayer (who wrote the electric good-cop/bad-cop slap-o-rama Training Day back in 2001) makes it work. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña, as the L.A. cops in question, display an engaging camaraderie while Ayer leavens the expected venom and violence with an infectious sense of humor and a welcome sweetness.
Brian (Gyllenhaal) and Mike (Peña) have developed the kind of bickering brotherhood that comes with being trapped in the same car together for several years. Their conversations, ranging from crime to quinceñeras, are full of joshing and ribbing but underneath it all is a foundation of respect and love.
Their world is inadvertently turned upside down when they stumble across a Mexican drug cartel trying to establish a foothold in an already gang-ridden Los Angeles neighborhood. That's where the gun-toting gangstas come in.
Much of what ensues is being captured on camera by Brian, who is recording his workday for a personal video project. That's where a lot of the shaky-cam comes in.
In between, we're introduced to their personal lives. Mike has been married for a while to Gabby (Natalie Martinez) and their first child is on the way. Brian recently met Janet (Anna Kendrick from Up in the Air) and he thinks she's the one. That's where the sweetness comes in.
Ayer hints at some things that it would be intriguing to explore more, such as the beefs between L.A.'s black and Hispanic gangs as the territory of the latter envelops that of the former. In End of Watch, both sides are pretty much reduced to being one-dimensional targets and victims as the focus is squarely on Brian and Mike. This isn't The Wire.
But thanks to Gyllenhaal's and Peña's lived-in performances and Ayer's ability to keep things moving as fast as a high-speed chase down I-405, there isn't much chance to linger over any clichés littering the streetscape like bullet casings.
As the pair move toward their inevitable showdown, there's actually a sense of foreboding and suspense.
This is one traffic stop that turns out to be anything but routine.