The biggest shock in David Ayer’s cop drama End of Watch doesn’t stem from the film’s many bloody altercations or its frenetic, found-footage aesthetic.  No, what unsettles End of Watch more than anything else is the quiet realization that, for maybe the first time in his career, Ayer is making a movie about good cops.  Until now, Ayer has been responsible for such policiers as The Fast and the Furious, S.W.A.T., Street Kings, Dark Blue, and Training Day, all of which cast Los Angeles law enforcement as a little more than cancerous and a little less than kind.

But End of Watch gives us a movie rarity: the LAPD, untarnished by graft or corruption.  Its central characters, Officers Taylor and Zavala (Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña), genuinely believe that they serve a higher calling, and they set off to better the world on every case, from noise complaints to a you-are-there vehicular pursuit.  I think it’s telling that the film’s central conflict emerges not from our heroes butting up against dirty cops but from refusing to stop investigating a ghastly multiple-homicide.  That’s not to say that Ayer paints his leads as one-dimensional ciphers; Taylor starts the film as a reckless hothead and inveterate ladies’ man (and if I have any problem with End of Watch, it’s that his relationship with Anna Kendrick’s leading lady bloats the film by ten minutes), and Zavala’s hyper-verbosity often puts him at odds with the other cops in his division.  But whatever their personal flaws, Taylor and Zavala aren’t willing to compromise their ethics while on the job, and the cast of erstwhile lawmakers surrounding them – America Ferrera, Cody Horn, David Harbour, and the great Frank Grillo – hits that same note of weary, dedicated professionalism.

In shifting the moral responsibility onto the peacemakers, Ayer has revitalized a tired genre.  We’ve so come to expect nefarious qualifiers tarnishing cinematic authority – a noir staple that’s endured from 1941’s The Maltese Falcon to 2006’s Academy Award-winning The Departed – that we process common cop-movie tropes differently when we view them through morally sound eyes.  Taylor and Zavala’s struggles are more exciting, more viscerally involving, because we want them to make it home alive.  This isn’t Guy Pearce’s scheming, politically savvy operator in L.A. Confidential or Gene Hackman’s racist bulldog in The French Connection: Taylor and Zavala are regular guys devoting themselves to a brutal, thankless trade, and Ayer gets us in their corner so he can twist the knife as the movie grows darker.

Darkness has never been something that Ayer has struggled with – Training Day immediately pops to mind, with Denzel Washington’s massively corrupt investigator forcing Ethan Hawke’s rookie cop to process a ride-along through a PSP haze – but he reaches a new level of grit this time around, including an officers-in-distress call that reaches Grand Guignol-levels of depravity and a crime scene littered in enough severed body parts and human waste as to make Seven‘s John Doe jealous.  In augmenting the horror of the LAPD’s experiences, Ayer’s use of found-footage tropes proves surprisingly credible.  A one-on-one fight between Zavala and a dangerous-but-honorable gangbanger (Cle Sloan) takes on a lurching, uncomfortable immediacy as the cameras on Zavala and Taylor swing in between the punches (in a nice touch, Gyllenhaal actually shoots the parts of the film that his character is documenting), and the protagonists’ dash into a burning building is almost impressionistic in its execution, with the camera registering only flames, smoke, and the leads’ terrified eyes.

Furthermore, Ayer dodges the biggest question I have with these found-footage features – why would anyone keep filming when the s**t really hits the fan – by dropping the format when it’s least appropriate.  End of Watch climaxes in a blistering shootout between our heroes and a cartel-motivated hit squad, and Ayer films most of the finale with traditional, non-fourth-wall-breaking coverage.  He makes the gimmick work for him rather than falling prey to its many limitations.

Other than the jazzy camerawork, End of Watch follows a fairly straightforward course – it doesn’t traffic in fancy plot twists or show-off-y effects.  The film dwells in the day-to-day realities of the LAPD, and it’s a far more satisfying picture because of its modest aims.  I’m reminded of Manny Farber’s affinity for “termite art” cinema, those movies that achieve greatness by contenting themselves with the minutia of everyday life.  It trusts that human drama can be great drama, that the stakes always matter.

Universal’s Blu-ray/DVD/UltraViolet Digital Copy combo pack looks fairly raw, as one might expect; the variable camera styles and stocks aren’t pretty, but they stay true to Ayer’s found-footage setup.  Far more polished is the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, which roars to life with great clarity and detail.

Supplementary features are a little thin.  We get five behind-the-scenes featurettes (“Fate with a Badge,” “In the Streets,” “Women on Watch,” “Watch Your Six,” and “Honors”) that are all too short to convey anything of substance.  Better are the full-length commentary track with Ayer, who delivers a fairly nonstop discussion of End of Watch‘s themes and production methods, and the over forty-five minutes of deleted scenes, the most interesting of which reveal that End of Watch initially had a far more depressing finale than its current incarnation has.

End of Watch is one of 2012’s sleeper hits, a tough, exciting little gem about good cops stuck in bad situations.  For fans of “Southland” and “The Shield,” it’s a must-see, though I think it’s good enough to satisfy even the most casual of cop-drama fans.

End of Watch streets on January 22nd.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

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