Friday, September 28, 2012

END OF WATCH Is One Hell of a Cop Movie


- I'll admit, my expectations were a bit lowered going into END OF WATCH. The movie had the misfortune of having a subpar panel at this past July's San Diego Comic-Con. With fans gathered in the massive Hall H to see glimpses of new geek-friendly films, sandwiched in between was a look at this gritty cop flick that probably had no business being at the show. I felt bad for director David Ayer and star Michael Pena for having to be there. But look, there was no way I was going to be able to get 100% psyched for a movie like this at a place like Comic-Con. Because  End of Watch isn't a showy, epic-scale movie. It's gritty, down-to-earth, and starkly realistic. It's also super-badass and absolutely riveting. Don't worry about the hype - or lack thereof - around this one. Just know that it's one of the best cop movies in years, and an affecting, gripping drama with some killer action to boot.

What makes End of Watch click is the relationship between its two leads - Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Zavala (Michael Pena). The two actors have a fantastic, naturalistic chemistry. What they - and director David Ayer - do so well, is pepper the film with banter and small talk that feels authentic. Honestly, the conversations that the two partners have while patrolling South Central LA result in some of the funniest moments in any movie so far this year. Gyllenhaal and Pena (especially Pena, who's just hilarious) make you laugh because there's that sense while watching them that you're participating in back-and-forth with your buddies. The dialogue has an improvised feel, but it's also sharp as hell. And as the two guys banter about wives, girlfriends, race, and everything else under the sun, it serves to make the movie's serious and dramatic moments that much more intense. Because we feel like we know these guys - like these are guys who could be our friends - it's all the more riveting and jarring to see them enter dangerous - oftentimes life or death - situations. To that end, these are deceptively great performances from Gyllenhaal and Pena. These are not showy, melodramatic parts - but they're understated, naturalistic, and multifaceted. Honestly, this is some of the best overall work of Gyllenhaal's career. And same goes for Pena - who's been hilarious in movies like 30 Minutes or Less, but adds some real depth and nuance to Zavala in addition to being very funny.

The film follows Taylor and Zavala, as they go about their routine as policemen in some of Los Angeles' worst neighborhoods. We quickly how the two are perceived within the LAPD - they can be pranksters, they can be immature - some might think they are a little too buddy-buddy - but ultimately they are respected and tend to be good at their jobs. Zavala is married - his wife was his high school sweetheart. Taylor is still looking for someone to settle down with. On the side, Taylor is taking a film class, and he's begun carrying a minicam around with him on his patrols - the idea being to get footage to make a documentary about his life as a cop. This informs a lot of the film's handheld camera, found-footage aesthetic. It's also a source of tension between Taylor and his superiors, as cops on patrol are strictly forbidden from recording their activities. In any case, we follow the two as they go about their routine. We get a sense of this world, of the criminal infrastructure of Los Angeles. The gangs, the drug-dealers, the informants. The tension at times between cops, detectives, federal agents, and DEA. These tensions escalate as Taylor and Zavala get involved in taking down local dealers with ties to the cartels. Suddenly, they are mixed up in some serious stuff, and they've got targets on their backs. At the beginning of the film, we see how the pair's commitment to their jobs and to the law makes them effective cops. But as the movie progresses, we see how that same commitment can put them directly in the cross-hairs of some very bad people.

At first, I had my doubts about the film's found-footage aesthetic. But eventually, it really won me over. It did so be cause Ayer plays fast and loose with it - he isn't afraid to mix things up, and push the limits of what the cameras see, or to add some stylistic flourishes when it serves the story. The movie tends to stick to handheld camera footage when it's just the two leads on their own. But Ayer will throw in sweeping establishing shots of LA to add color and atmosphere and scale. At times, he'll shift focus to the gang of drug-dealers looking to cause trouble for the cops, at which time we see the action through an ominous night-vision lense. Other times, Ayer will borrow the aesthetic of first-person shooter games, and create a sense of you-are-there immediacy during some of the movie's most intense action scenes. It's a trick that works surprisingly well - some of the movie's big shootouts and action sequences  are total nail-biters, in large part thanks to how dynamically they are shot. As when you're playing a really intense shooter game, you're on the edge of your seat, wondering who or what lurks around every corner.

But again, the intensity and chaos of the film's gritty action scenes is tempered by the many scenes of quiet humanity and emotion. We see Taylor and Zavala's friendship at and away from work. We see Taylor kick off a relationship with a promising new girl (played with geeky likability by Anna Kendrick), that then blossoms into a real romance. We follow these characters as their lives evolve, even as we keep coming back to their existence in the dark, mean streets of LA. Essentially, Ayer deftly humanizes these characters, and makes us think about the lives that they - and real-life cops like them - lead. These are deeply flawed, all-too-human characters - but you also come away from the film thinking about the risks that cops face every day, and with a deeper understanding of what it is to be a cop.

END OF WATCH at times meanders a bit, and occasionally seems a little too in love with the banter generated from its main characters. But mostly, the movie just works - it's funny, action-packed, and surprisingly poignant. There are some things in it that are genuinely disturbing, and despite the gritty and realistic tone, the movie's also got its share of "holy $%&#" moments as well. Gyllenhaal and Pena do great work here, and easily carry the movie. The result is a badass cop story - but one with plenty of humor and heart.

My Grade: A-

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