Just as the trend in Hollywood, after decades of anti-Americanism and anti-military prejudice, may now be moving in the opposite direction in movies like The Hurt Locker, Act of Valor, and the forthcoming Zero Dark Thirty, about the killing of Osama bin Laden, so we may hope that an even longer-lived if less-pronounced vogue for movies about corrupt cops may be giving way to movies like David Ayer’s End of Watch, which is such a throwback to old-time movies about hero-cops that it will look positively corny to some.
Behind my badge is a heart like yours. I bleed, I think, I love, and yes, I can be killed. And although I am but one man, I have thousands of brothers and sisters who would die for me and I for them. We stand watch together. I am fate with a badge and a gun. The thin-blue-line, protecting the prey from the predators, the good from the bad. We are the police.
These are the voiceover words of one of the film’s two heroes — in both senses of the term — Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal). As his old-fashioned movieish spiel suggests, he would presumably be impossibly straight-arrowish and therefore phony by today’s standards, but for the fact that he is supposed to be making the movie himself. Or at least a movie that is not entirely separate and distinct from this movie. As a part-time law student, he is said to be taking an elective in film-making and so is recording his working life as a cop on film — or, rather, in digital form — as a student project which, we are to suppose, has been spliced together with the film we are watching.
It is, perhaps, a better idea in conception than it is in execution, but it allows Mr. Ayer, who wrote the screenplay for the corrupt-cop movies Training Day (2001) and Harsh Times (2005) and who directed the latter, to put a certain ironic distance between himself and the remarkably uncorrupt, indeed heroic, cops we see in this latest movie. Brian Taylor is also an ex-marine, which produces a bit of pro-military messaging as well. But without his mini camera and filmic ambition, even though both are mostly forgotten half-way through Mr. Ayer’s movie, Brian would doubtless be too good to be believed. The bad guys — members of a super-violent Mexican drug cartel led by someone called (no irony here!) “Big Evil” which has unexpectedly hopped the border to establish itself in L.A.’s gangland — might be thought too bad to be believed, but for what I suppose is the great publicity, from their point of view, that the brutality of real Mexican drug cartels has been getting in the U.S. recently.
That this particular cartel has also displaced the black gangs that used to run what used to be called South Central may be thought also to immunize the film and its makers from charges of racism or stereotyping, since the city’s black gangs, as represented by the streetwise Mr. Tre (Cle Sloan), are also victims and, after an initial flurry of bravado, meekly take their place as allies of the police and members in good standing of the “prey” whom the police are said by Brian to protect from such “predators” as they themselves once were. Meanwhile, the predator-Mexicans are also saved from the dreaded fate of racial stereotyping by the fact that Brian Taylor’s partner, best friend and role model, Mike Zavala (Michael Peña) is Chicano.
Mike or “Z” also comes from a large, jolly, and tight-knit extended family — which might be thought by some to flirt with stereotyping as well — and so provides the white boy with a life-affirming model for domestic relations and philoprogenitive ambitions when Brian gets serious about his new girlfriend, Janet (Anna Kendrick), a former “badge-bunny” with a master’s degree in fluid dynamics. Yet much is made of the LAPD as a kind of family as well, where not only male-bonding goes on — the words “I love you, man” actually occur in only semi-ironic form — but everyone looks out for everyone else and the gals are as tough, and tough-talking, as the guys. Heck, even the homicidal drug cartel isn’t so far behind the times as to exclude a couple of lesbian killers, if not killer-lesbians, from the gang that comes gunning for Brian and Z.
It all seems rather a long way around to produce what, apart from its super-hip and ironic style, amounts to little more than your typical cop buddy-flick. That business about being ready to die for one another is, as you will readily imagine, going to be put to the test. And Brian and Michael’s solemnly swearing to look after each other’s wives and families in case anything “happens” may also suggest foreboding possibility. Still, there is little time to think of such things in the course of the film’s numerous action sequences as our guys battle not only the cartel but the other every-day hazards — maybe a little too everyish — of a street cop’s life in L.A., including a house fire to which the fire department are late arrivals. Presumably Mr. Ayer is well aware of the commercial imperative to give viewers what they expect and want while also giving them his portrait of the real, unironic heroism that they may not yet know they want. Again.
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