Do not, for more than a minute, confuse "End of Watch" with television. It's one of the toughest and most powerful and moving action films to come along in months.
It's admittedly easy to conflate it with TV, which is why more than a few of the more doltish people in the movie commentary business are doing it.
It is immediately clear, though, that at the very least this is TV by other means - those other means being hand-held digital cameras that are used constantly throughout, largely under the pretext that one of a pair of South Central cops in Los Angeles is making a film project for school.
Add to all that the dashboard cam in the squad car he and his partner careen around the toughest parts of the city, the helicopter shots seemingly ubiquitous in L.A. from TV stations and various bad guys who also seem to be filming.
There are two consequences: the peril of queasiness for those viewers who need Dramamine to deal with cinematography that has pitched stability over the side in favor of vérité; and the eerie comedy of a brutal cop action film in which everyone seems to have his own camera.
Because we are talking about Los Angeles, a city in which cameras seem to be everywhere and citizens are nothing if not camera savvy, the ubiquity of characters with cameras gives the film a wacked-out authority.
The director is David Ayer, who wrote the testosterone-soaked screenplay for "Training Day" that won an Oscar for Denzel Washington. He's also a man who spent his teenage years on the streets of South Central Los Angeles. This is a film purporting to give you the cop's-eye-view of a city where death and God-only-knows-what lay waiting behind every iron door and every seemingly innocent circumstance.
Imagine if TV's "Cops" had graduated to one of the inner circles of urban hell and you've got the often remarkable feel of Ayer's film. The language spoken in this hell is Adorned F-word. If you're not "gangsta" in this neighborhood, you've got to sound "gangsta." Anything less is to invite the neighborhood's meaner brutality through your front door.
It's about a couple of hotshot cop partners who seem to be on a roll in their jobs. One, an ex-Marine named Taylor, is played by Jake Gyllenhaal with shaved head and conspicuous muscle and added beef. The other is Mike Savala, played by Michael Pena, his long and happily married partner. When not doing the city's business, he tends to have a wisecrack for every occasion. When he's not so tired he's falling asleep, he's usually got a mischievous glint in his eye.
They turn into supercops by accident. The first thing you see is an exciting dashboard cam view of a car chase through ghetto streets and a shootout.
But they're outgunned. Yes, we know all this from TV but this has details. Their department-issue Glock 19s are no match for the AK-47s we see in one gang drive-by. They're the indication that new fires have come to urban hell. Mexican drug cartels have, in fact, moved north and begun to operate.
It's proprietary information, though. Our street cops patrolling in their squad car are just grunts in this war. It's too much information for their pay grade.
They find out in a string of happenstance supercop triumphs - a traffic checkup that reveals some of the worst smuggling of all, a fire that winds up with them saving three children and getting the dangerous public attention of departmental medals, a routine domestic checkup that winds up with horrors, justice and them getting the wrong kind of attention from the worst people.
Taylor finally finds a girl he wants to spend his life with (Anna Kendrick, star of the upcoming "Pitch Perfect"). But his real marriage is to his partner, the one he can joke with in the script's wisecracking patter: their professional diet on the street is composed of "all the major food groups - dope, money and guns;" their tough guy parody of wisdom "policing is all about comfortable footwear; their brotherhood is of the badge.
The action scenes are exceptional. Obviously, director Ayer cheats all the time here, giving you points of view that clearly belong to none of the characters' cameras. The film still has a taut vérité grip. A scene where cops under siege wait for backup is played out in real time in film terms, but it seems like protracted suspenseful agony.
"Training Day" was about "a thin blue line" so permeable that it disappeared. Ayer's "End of Watch" is a South Central boy's revision of hell's moral map to put his cops back where they belong. It's tough, exciting and sometimes brilliant.
END OF WATCH
Three and 1/2 stars (Out of four)
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Pena, Anna Kendrick, America Ferrera
Director: David Ayer
Running time: 109 minutes
Rating: R for strong violence, some disturbing images, pervasive rough language including sexual references and drug use.
The Lowdown: Two hotshot cops in South Central Los Angeles find themselves in the crosshairs of a Mexican mob cartel.