DVD/Blu-ray: "End of Watch" like a grittier, character-driven "Cops" episode

End of Watch (2012)
109 min., rated R.

Ever since 1999's "The Blair Witch Project" launched the you-are-there technique with a hand-held camera, it seems every filmmaker and his brother had to jump on the bandwagon of the found-footage fad. Horror films shot as faux-documentaries are a dime a dozen, but this once-fresh aesthetic doesn't have to strictly work for the horror genre, and so it goes with "End of Watch." For fear that you expect an episode of "Cops" on a bigger screen or "The South Central Police Project" (see what I did there?), this potent buddy-cop/docudrama hybrid is a visceral, in-your-face punch in the gut.

Apparently sticking to what he knows, writer-director David Ayer follows his screenwriting credits of "Training Day" and "Dark Blue," as well as directorial efforts "Harsh Times" and "Street Kings," but doesn't focus on the corruption and makes sure his cop characters behave with more tact this time around. Officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña) are hotshot partners (and good friends) patrolling the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles. They pride themselves in being "ghetto street cops" who make a difference, but responding to a routine call leads to the discovery of human trafficking, which might get them in too deep with some nasty Mexican drug cartels. It's foreboding enough when an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent tells them, "You just tugged on the tail of a snake; it's gonna turn around and bite you back."

What's the context of the documentary-style gimmick, you ask? Brian grips a camera around to document his work days as a school project for his filmmaking elective. From the opening, he narrates while his camera is mounted to the dashboard of a patrol car during a high-speed chase, and it's thrilling stuff. Luckily, "End of Watch" doesn't hold onto this conceit when it doesn't need it. Less nausea-inducing "Look, Ma! I'm shaking a camera!" shooting, the better. With that said, it doesn't even feel necessary to have Brian shoot for a project that never seems to progress, so why not drop it altogether? And why do gang members carry around hand-held cameras, too, especially during drive-bys and shootouts? But, be that as it may, the film interweaves its sources of coverage with a more omniscient view, so suspending one's disbelief is a small price to pay. Roman Vasyanov's jittery camerawork is imbued with such immediacy that it makes the already-realistic approach more gritty and intense. 

When these blue knights are in action, the "real" aesthetic works incredibly well. A blistering scene where Brian and Mike become heroes, running into a burning house and saving a woman's three children, rattles the nerves with close-ups of their faces shrouded in smoke. Akin to a horror film in the same visual format, apprehension builds when the partners enter a home that eventually leads them to a gruesome find. Prior to that, all of the day-to-day realities of being part of the LAPDthe altercations, the paper work, etc.could have grown tiresome and repetitive, but the film deceptively becomes more character-driven and often unbearably tense. It's like we're right there cruising around with Brian and Mike. These guys are hard-hitters when it comes to their job, but wearing a badge also means putting their own lives in harm's way. Where the film climaxes is inevitable, a gripping shootout between our heroes and the trigger-happy cartel, but where it actually ends is both bold and unsparing.

Both naturalistic, Gyllenhaal and Peña share an authentic, lived-in banter and camaraderie as the boys in blue. At one point, their impersonations of one another are very funny, and most of their dialogue seems so off-the-cuff and spontaneous. You like their brotherly bond and you believe it. The women here are good, too: America Ferrera and Cody Horn from "Magic Mike" both welcome a change of pace in the badass roles of tough lady officers. Cast against type in her toughest, most violent movie, Anna Kendrick is also engaging as Brian's new sweetie Janet; her dance with Brian to Salt-N-Pepa's "Push It" is the cutest moment in the film by far. Those playing the shady, cold-blooded gangbangers are stereotypical but scary and intimidating, particularly Maurice Compte as Big Evil and rapper Yahira 'Flakiss' Garcia as La La. "End of Watch" holds our attention in spades and, before the coda that double-backs and suffers from a failure of nerve, never feels dishonest about such a rough 'n tough line of work. This surely won't mark the end of the found-footage trend, and it should usher in many more uses of the gimmick that are as germane and compelling as this one.