The found-footage phenomenon has its roots in breaking a central tenet of modern filmmaking: the distance between the protagonists and the audience. By removing the ‘artifice’ of a director’s camera, and putting it solely in the characters’ own hands, the theory holds, the impact of the action will be more raw and authentic-seeming without the cushion of a film crew and production artists and craftspeople to keep everyone at a safe distance. Hence, it’s popularity in the horror genre, perhaps most famously realized in the wildly successful <i>Paranormal Activity</i> series.
In David Ayers’ arresting film about young cops on the rough L.A. beat, he outright cheats the convention, including stylized ‘professional’ footage amongst the shots taken from squad car cameras, hand-held mini-cams, and tiny lavalier-style micro cameras stuck into shirt collars, each of which is operated by a young officer as part of a vague “film project” he’s shooting for a class.
The cop, Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal), is one half of a significant squad car bromance, along with his Mexican-American partner, Mike Zavala (Michael Peña), having met at the academy and stuck fast ever since. They patrol the mean streets of south L.A. with a hearty bonhomie, telling each other a stream of bawdy stories (Mike is married with children; as the film opens, Brian is happily single), unrestrained fist-bumping and, most of all, ripping on each other at every opportunity (both do a wicked impression of the other, one of the comic highlights in their never-ending repartee).
Naturally, they also get the job done. Do they ever. In the course of the few months in which the film takes place, the make huge drug busts, save a family from a burning building, rescue their fellow officers several times, and free a bunch of migrant workers held in a hellacious house of human trafficking.
It is this last bit of daring-do that runs them seriously afoul of a major Mexican cartel (the lazy-man’s catch all for ‘unequivocally evil’ villains, a kind of modernist fill-in for the Nazis), which leads to a significant price placed on their heads.
The action, as you can imagine, is plentiful and not-unpleasingly over-the-top, with bullets whizzing by our two protagonists seemingly every time they leave the man-cave of their squad car and venture out onto the sunny tarmac, but the strength of the film, fittingly, is watching the two buddies rip on each other even as they fiercely protect each other from the various outside threats that promise to do them harm, be they on the outside, with the cartel assassins in full chase, or internally, as they grate against the nerves of a fellow officer (David Harbour) and attempt to skate past the mandatory therapy sessions they earn for being so gun-happy.
Ayers’ script also includes a nice burning build — despite (or perhaps because of) the frequent danger Taylor and Zavala find themselves in, it’s hard not to take their gritty survival into question until the film reaches its action apex near the end. It doesn’t exactly make for passable realism — it’s like four episodes of an explosive cop show all bound together — but despite its found-footage conceits and concentration on the boys’ respective home lives (all of which are a good deal more realistic than their job) — we are to understand this to be the sort of cop movie, standard to the genre, in which hookers hook, shooters let fly, and drug lords stop at nothing to get their way.
None of which takes away from the performances of our two leads. Reportedly, Gyllenhaal and Peña spent some months in the presence of real L.A. cops, getting a feel for the rhythms and pace of the cops comradery, and their attention to detail shows. It’s just odd to have a movie with two such believable characters in a world that seems taken right out of a pulpy cop show from the ’70s.