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Cops play by their own rules in mixed 'End of Watch'

Open Road Films

Michael Pena and Jake Gyllenhaal in "End of Watch."

REVIEW: David Ayer's South Central-set cop film "End of Watch" feels like the work of a man who, after relishing venal and brutal policework in his scripts for "Training Day" and "Dark Blue,"  has come to identify with, and maybe love, the L.A.P.D. Here, L.A.'s finest may work in a world of cut corners and bad attitudes, but they're the good guys, and damned if you're not going to accept it. Vigorously capturing the tension of walking into situations that could be deadly, horrifying, or both, it has a strong commercial appeal despite some shortcomings.

"End of Watch" trailer: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Pena are endangered L.A. cops (Video)

It's hard at first to figure out what Ayer thinks of his protagonist Officer Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal), a macho "ghetto street cop" whose plan to make a documentary about life on the force (he carries a camera along on his beat and in the police house, to the chagrin of colleagues) looks less journalistic than narcissistic. The voiceover with which he opens "End of Watch" starts off street-tough, then pivots: "beyond my badge is a heart like yours," he says, continuing to speak of his inner yearnings. David Sardy's score turns melodramatic alongside him, sounding like ironic commentary on this self-aggrandizement, but eventually it's clear Ayer's film buys what Taylor's selling. Viewers may too, as Gyllenhaal thoroughly inhabits this problematic personality.

Michael Peña's Officer Zavala, though matching his partner for general wiseassery, has a much smaller chip on his shoulder. (As in "World Trade Center,"  where he was married to a Gyllenhaal instead of manning a squad car with one, Peña shows he has mastered the "Latino partner loyal to Caucasian hero" role. It's time for him to graduate.)

Having just returned from leave after killing two subjects in the course of duty (it was a clean shooting, everyone agrees), Taylor and Zavala are even higher-profile at the precinct house than usual. A pair of no-nonsense female cops (America Ferrera and Cody Horn) resent their attitude; a disgruntled veteran (David Harbour) resents their self-satisfaction. But though the energy and direction of some patrol encounters might have viewers expecting these cops to be (or soon become) involved in something crooked, the worst you can say about them is, like practically every cop in film history, they don't play by the rules.

Here, ignoring the rules -- following up on leads that should be passed along to detectives -- opens a window into the grisly north-of-the-border activities of a Mexican drug cartel. "The cartels" hover unseen above the action here (until the third act), raising a question: If they decide to expand their presence, can they wreak as much havoc in the States as they have in Mexico? Nobody voices that concern, but way they say the words suggests they don't assume an easy victory.

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While we don't see the cartels, we do meet some American aspirants to their level of terror-fueled success as the film eavesdrops on some Latino youths called the Curbside Gang. If these killers look more like sketches for post-Cartel gang stereotypes instead of believable humans, that irritant is compounded by the fact that they, too, are filming everything they do. Scenes of self-documentation are so common in the movie's beginning (is "End of Watch" a misnomer when everybody's watching himself?) that we expect Ayer to make something of it in the end.

Ayer drops that ball, if he ever meant to carry it somewhere. And in the last 15 minutes of the film, he burns up some of the credibility he established by not pushing extreme situations too far earlier on. But he has managed to involve us in the lives of his characters -- whose storylines may be familiar (as in Taylor's romance with smart outsider Janet, played charmingly by Anna Kendrick), but are played out in a world that for the most part feels real.

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