David Ayer's made the boys in blue his business model, through both pen (Training Day, Dark Blue) and lens (Harsh Times, Street Kings). Though those titles have fluctuated in quality, he's struck behind-the-badge gold with End of Watch, a rewarding, if redundant, exploration into a brotherhood where survival supersedes race and class.
Set in modern-day South Central L.A., a chessboard the writer/director navigates better than pretty much anyone, Watch shadows young partners Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Zavala (Michael Peña), beat cops with little in common aside from the oath they've sworn. Taylor, a single former Marine, is enrolled in law school, the first-person approach driving the proceedings limply justified by the explanation that he's collecting footage for a film-making elective. Z, meanwhile, married his high-school sweetheart right after graduation and looks forward to bringing children of his own into his tightknit Mexican family. Their differences are explored via nimble, substantial squad-car banter that provides an astute in-road into their bond, clowning the lazy "reasonable guy/wacky guy" conceit that colors lesser law-enforcement movies. But all that quippage flies out the window the second the cops overstep their pay grade, following a trail that uncovers evidence of sordid Mexican cartel activity on American soil.
Ayer's scripting tends to run his stars ragged, banging home insights that have already been revealed by his stars' graceful chemistry. But in a genre bound and gagged by cliche, an inventive approach should be celebrated in spite of its imperfections.