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Saturday, September 22, 2012

End of Watch

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David Ayer's End of Watch is probably the most gripping and emotionally effective cop dramas I have sat through in a long time.  It feels honest and real, and the relationship between its two lead stars, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena, feels completely natural.  We believe them as friends and partners both on and off the police force.  The movie also uses a highly effective "day in the life" approach, making us feel like we are looking in on the everyday lives of these people.

picAll of this amounts to a superb film, with one major setback - The decision to shoot the whole film with shaky, handheld cameras.  Part of this decision makes sense, as Gyllenhaal's character always has a digital camera on hand filming everything he sees on the job for a film project he's doing for a class.  But, even when we are supposed to be looking at the characters in a third person perspective, not through Gyllenhaal's lens, the movie still uses the shaky handheld style.  For most of the film, it's simply a mild annoyance, although I imagine those audience members who are sensitive to the camera constantly shaking and bouncing may want to skip this one.  But, in certain action-heavy scenes, such as when the two lead cops race into a burning house to rescue some children trapped inside, the handheld-style turns the sequence into a shaky and incoherent mess.

picThis is the one flaw of an otherwise flawless movie.  In a somewhat bold movie for Hollywood, Ayers does not focus on any police corruption, or officers going beyond their badge.  It is simply about the relationship and the day to day experiences of two street cops who patrol L.A. in some of the more gang-infested areas.  They are Brian Taylor (Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena).  We see how they interact with each other, and we see their private lives, such as Mike's wife (Natalie Martinez) expecting her first baby, and Brian thinking about proposing to his girlfriend (Anna Kendrick).  When you see as many movies as I do, you end up unfortunately watching a lot of stuff where you just don't care about what's going on, or the characters within it.  Here, however, we are completely emotionally invested, because Ayers' screenplay really seeks out the humanity in the people who drive the police cars.  Not just Brian and Mike, but the other people they interact with on the force.  There's a real sense of camaraderie and companionship that we don't get in a lot of movies.

picMost of the movie seems to be devoted to Brian and Mike responding to everyday calls, such as children who have gone missing, or checking on a house where an elderly woman has not been heard from for the past few days.  And yet, a lot of these events eventually become connected, and are building to a highly intense final 30 minutes.  When Brian and Mike begin to be recognized for their various efforts in the local gang areas, they draw the attention of a Mexican drug cartel who fears that the cops are getting too close to their operation, and are also staging a war with the black gangs for control of the territory.  The two partners don't realize what they are being dragged into, but we do, which creates an urgent sense of tension in the film.  The way that the plot ultimately unfolds is subtle and masterful, and the execution of the climax is one of the more tense action sequences I've seen in years.  The way the script has built up our feelings for these characters only adds to the impact of the climax.

picPart of what makes the climax so thrilling is up until that point, a lot of End of Watch has shared the same easy-going likability that the two lead characters hold.  There are some dramatic and tense moments throughout, but they are always punctuated afterward by Brian and Mike's laid back relationship with each other.  Gyllenhaal and Pena act like they have known each for years, and create such an easy communication with each other that it becomes one of the more natural screen partnerships I've seen in a while.  The entire cast is equally excellent.  Although there are some recognizable actors in there, nobody comes across like they are giving a performance, and seem like they've been patrolling the streets for years.  There's not a moment between these people that feels scripted.
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David Ayers has worked on a lot of cop dramas in the past, his most famous effort being writing the screenplay for 2001's Training Day.  I feel that End of Watch is honestly his best and most realistic effort.  It sucks us in with its laid back and down to earth depiction of these cops in their everyday lives, and then builds tension without us even noticing.  If you can handle the camera shaking and bouncing around, you will be rewarded with one of the better movie experiences of 2012 so far.

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at Amazon.com!

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