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The Hip-Hop Cops of David Ayer’s ‘End of Watch’

Jake Gyllenhaal & Michael Peña in 'End of Watch'

David Ayer’s End of Watch, now out on DVD, is a jittery, picaresque cop drama that follows Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Richard Peña), two well-meaning, good-hearted though bro-ish cops in Los Angeles. The movie makes no wrong turns and never stumbles, despite being ostensibly caught up in a chintzy found-footage conceit and saddled with a loaded, unabashedly pro-police stance. At the least, director and writer Ayer does not believe that each and every person with a badge is a racist piece of garbage, which is sort of a big deal in the intellectually rigorous American crime genre.

Heroism exists in End of Watch, even though our heroes, upon saving some children from a burning building, admit they don’t feel like heroes much at all. Also, their significant others are pissed that they would do something as stupid as rush into a building that’s on fire to save some kids who aren’t their own. A dead-eyed opening monologue all but admits that cops are a nagging and problematic force in communities, for better and worse, which should help cynics feel more comfortable watching this thing.

Not to mention, the deck is stacked against them from the start when they mercilessly blow away some gang members shooting at them in the first scene, and then, walk around with massive chips on their shoulder for much of the first act. The rest of the movie though, knocks that chip all over the place and reveals the humans behind the dude-cop swagger. Most of End of Watch consists of exceedingly well-acted conversations about life and love while the two are on patrol. It’s a wizened buddy movie that touches on things like glory and duty and mutual respect without selling it too hard or getting too Peckinpah-like, which would just come off as stale and unrealistic in 2013. Men don’t act like Warren Oates anymore. That’s probably a good thing, right?

Ayer understands the way that the police and civilians, some of whom are criminals, are inextricably tied. The “us vs. them” attitude of cynical cop movies like Oren Moverman’s recent Rampart gets a much-needed correction. In one of End of Watch‘s first scenes, a black drug dealer insults Zavalas to the point that the officer loses it and challenges him to a fistfight. The two brawl with the promise that if Zavalas wins, the drug dealer will handcuff himself. The scene is pure movie nonsense, but it’s effective because it becomes about two dudes in opposition keeping their word to one another. The drug dealer loses. He cuffs himself. Later on, we witness the drug dealer recounting the story to his friends, who are surprised he wasn’t charged with assaulting a police officer. Zavalas didn’t cop-out or snitch. That’s still important in Ayer’s world.

One of the most fascinating elements of End of Watch, though, is the pervasive influence of hip-hop on these two cops’ lives. Both Taylor and Zavalas are of the hip-hop generation. Zavalas tosses around hip-hop slang (“dope” is used quite frequently) and the two tease each other in a “stuff white people like” way that is, if not “post-racial” (because fuck that word), the kind of politically incorrect goofing around that comes from people who aren’t hung up on these things like their parents or less-exposed peers. It’s a movie full of mindful ribbing influenced by, say, Def Comedy Jam and Ego Trip.

Ayers also eases into hip-hop with the soundtrack, first by old-school nods via Public Enemy’s “Harder Than You Think” and Paris’ “Funky Lil’ Party.” But as the movie goes along, he takes more risks with the music. A day trip between Taylor and his girlfriend is scored to Cam’ron’s “Hey Ma” and the two of them lovingly sing the song to one another in the car, smiling with the “We gonna get it on tonight” hook. A few scenes earlier, a lovemaking scene is set to Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You.” There’s no difference between Mazzy Star and Cam’ron. One isn’t “serious” music and the other “party” music.

At the couple’s wedding, they do the thing that all of us of Generation Xers and Yers do, which is not take anything seriously, so their romantic slow-dance morphs into a choreographed, jokey get-down to Salt n Pepa’s “Push It.” It’s there, like so many things in End of Watch, because it is a well-observed and realistic generational detail, but also because it connotes the couple’s genuine sense of fun and camaraderie. They “get” each other. Rap is part of the way in which these two fairly square white people communicate. And it informs these police officers’ and multicultural best friends’ conversations too. There’s no sense that AK-toting, shit-talking gang members are any more or less a product of hip-hop than our cop heroes. In one of the most bleak and hopeless films in quite some time, hip-hop affords its characters some much-deserved joy.