End Of Watch: How Cops See ThemselvesS

For some reason, I'm reminded of an old Letterman Top 10 list, from Dec. 1, 1989. (How great is it, by the way, that there's an online database of old Letterman Top 10 lists?) The list was "Top 10 Amish Pickup Lines." This one always just killed me: "Say, my favorite movie is Witness too!" (All right, "Are thee up for a plowing?" isn't bad either.)

Certain movies just resonate with their target audience for decades, even if they never broke through to the rest of the planet, even if they're not really all that good. Teachers have a thing for Mr. Holland's Opus. Doctors seem to have a thing for 1991's The Doctor, in which hotshot surgeon William Hurt contracts a serious illness and learns what it's like to be a patient. Writers are into Adaptation; wine people are into Sideways; banker assholes are into Boiler Room. These movies make their specialized viewers feel as if they were watching the perfect-world version of their chosen profession or passion, and therefore of themselves. That's what movies are suppose to do, after all.

End of Watch is a movie that has all sorts of problems, but the one thing it consistently gets right is what life as a city cop must be like, or at least what city cops imagine their lives are like. It nails their perspective, their camaraderie, their us-against-the-world mindset that inevitably arises out of a job like theirs. In five years or so, when you ask a cop what his favorite movie is, there's an excellent chance he'll say End of Watch. (A male cop, anyway.)

The movie stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena as partners, "ghetto cops," patrolling the streets of South Central (or South L.A., as they're trying to get you to call it now) with a convincing mixture of bravado, naivete, and testosterone. Both are in serious relationships—commitment-phobe Gyllenhaal's dating a "smart girl" (Anna Kendrick) and Pena's been with his wife (Natalie Martinez) since they were teenagers—but the movie never really pretends they're not more deeply in love with each other than with anyone else. (Not like that, bro!) They are best friends who know each other better than they know themselves, and they trudge up and down the streets of South Central as if they were in a road movie together, joking around, relying on each other, pouring out their bro souls, and, occasionally, blasting their way through terrifying shootouts. They're truly, in every possible way, partners.

The movie has a kinetic tunnel vision—these cops never know what they'll run into at any given second; there's less a plot than a series of increasingly scary adventures—that is thrilling to watch, and Gyllenhaal and Pena have an easy, unforced chemistry. (Pena, in particular, is funny and moving.) The film is written and directed by David Ayer, who has a thing for cops; he wrote Training Day, as well as S.W.A.T. and Dark Blue. This is his terrain, and as far as cop movies go, this is his masterwork; it's the closest he's come to a heightened simulation, a merging of what a cop's life is really like with what is exciting to watch in a movie. It's a nifty trick.

For some reason, Ayer turns this into a found-footage movie, which is a distracting device that probably should have been eliminated in the script stage. He has enough to work with just with these two guys, and the world they inhabit; their jobs require them to not quite understand the plot they find themselves in until it's too late. This is a movie, above all, about how a cop is a cop even when he's not on duty. He's a cop 24 hours a day, for the rest of his life. Ayer makes it his goal to show just what that means. It might not always be the smoothest, most believable movie, but it's always entertaining, and it never fails to keep your attention. It didn't make me want to be a cop. But it made me understand why so many would, and just what that means to them. These are two good cops. Not all cops are as good as these two cops. But I bet this is exactly how cops see themselves, all the time.

Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.