As the unapologetic (and unofficial) voice of the LAPD, screenwriter David Ayer (Training Day, Dark Blue) consistently paints vivid pictures of the really mean streets of South Central. And they’ve never been meaner than in End of Watch.

Shot primarily as a hand-held, found footage-type film, End of Watch is a gripping thrill ride that’s easily among the best films of the year– and that includes the three months still to come. Packed with career-best performances all around, it’s also anchored by a gritty script so authentic that you can’t help but feel you’re in the middle of a harrowing documentary.

Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena) patrol South Central, and not a day goes by that the you-know doesn’t hit the fan. From an opening car chase sequence to a rescue of kids from a house fire, they clearly have each other’s back, and we never doubt for a minute that each trusts the other with his life.

Then, when a routine (are they ever?) traffic stop starts a chain of events that lands them on the hit list of a Mexican drug cartel, Taylor and Zavala suddenly find themselves neck-deep in an all-out fight for their lives.

But End of Watch isn’t just one, long dash-cam video of drug busts and drive-bys. Ayer, who also directed, crafted a multi-layered script that perfectly (and smartly) contrasts Taylor and Zavala’s home lives and work lives. Immediately after a wedding scene when they share a bottle of tequila and an “I love you, man” moment, they’re breaking down the door of a house to find an entire room of decaying body parts. It was the best of times and the worst of times indeed.

Gyllenhaal and Pena are each at the top of their game, sharing a rapport that rivals Pulp Fiction‘s Jules and Vincent. And their ability to easily convince us that these are real guys doing a real job, facing real danger, elevates End of Watch from buddy-cop picture to must-see event. Gyllenhaal has never given a more honest and nuanced performance, and Pena finally has his break-out role. Anna Kendrick and Natalie Martinez, as the guy’s respective significant others, are also quietly brilliant in supporting roles.

It all combines to make End of Watch as captivating a piece of film-making as you’ll see in 2012– a nerve-racking, two-hour ride-along that grabs you and won’t let go.

5/5 stars