Wednesday, September 26, 2012

End of Watch

Alternate Title:  Knights in Blue

One sentence synopsis:  Two cops in South-Central Los Angeles run afoul of Mexican Drug cartels while living their lives outside of work.

Things Havoc liked:  I'm just gonna go ahead and say it: I hate Jake Gyllenhaal. I hate him primarily because he starred in Donnie Darko, one of the most overrated movies in cinematic history. He did not help his case when he went on from that to make movies like October Sky and The Day After Tomorrow, alternately a sappy snoozefest derived from the worst dregs of the 1950s and a preachy extremist tale of how Dick Cheney destroyed the world. Even his "good" work, such as Brokeback Mountain or last year's Source Code either went unseen by me, or had their virtues somehow contrive to hide themselves in my presence. As such, I was not exactly eager to go see this movie, headlined as it was by Mr. Gyllenhaal, but my other selection for this week fell through, and I found myself with no other options.

I should have known better. End of Watch was written and directed by David Ayer, writer of such movies as Dark Blue, SWAT, and a movie so good it made me like Ethan Hawke, Training Day. Ayer is a rarity, a Hollywood writer so good with a particular genre that he has managed to typecast himself, but given that we're working within the genre here, that's no problem. And to make this film, Ayer wisely added Michael Pena, formerly of Crash and various TV movies, to serve as Officer Mike Zavala, partner of Officer Brian Taylor (Gyllenhaal) on the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles. In a film with very few missteps, Pena steals the show as one of the most "real" portrayals of a cop I've ever seen on the silver screen. None of the usual things one means by "real" apply here, as Zavala (and Taylor) are neither "gritty" nor "hard boiled" nor "break all the rules" nor "rookies", though they are all of these things at times. Instead they are real people, partners in a Law Enforcement agency that might well exist, just as portrayed. Taylor and Zavala are less like partners and more like brothers, covering one another's backs in a sense that goes beyond professional but never veers into hackneyed cliche. They attend each others' weddings, talk about their lives, their plans, their hopes, joke and fight with one another the way only people of long acquaintance can, cementing over and over again a bond between them that seems absolutely real. In one of the best sequences in the film, Zavala offers Taylor tickets to a Dodgers game, which he turns down, as he and his girlfriend are going to attend the LA Philharmonic instead. "Oh, okay, have fun with your white people shit," says Zavala, entirely without sarcasm.

End of Watch isn't really a narrative film in the sense that we expect. It's not about a series of events that happen in sequence to characters who are changed by the experience. Instead, the movie is simply about two cops, no more, no less, chronicling their lives as peace officers in South Central LA, an area showcased so much in film that merely mentioning it brings all manner of expectations to the forefront. The film is shot Blair-Witch style with a series of cameras mounted on dashboards, jacket pockets, or within lockers, presumably as a film school assignment on the part of one of the cops, permitting us to essentially follow along with them as they go through their days. We see Taylor and Zavala cruising their patrols, serving warrants, performing traffic stops on suspicious vehicles. We see them dealing with other cops from their precinct, dealing with paperwork, we meet their families, attend their weddings and the births of their children, and are just generally allowed to get to know them without the need for an imposed storyline or narrative. Oh the story is there, certainly, involving Mexican drug cartels and the increasingly violent events that the two cops get swept up in, but it's never once pushed to the forefront, nor made to feel like the movie is about anything but the lives of these two police. In the hands of a lesser writer, this might have been boring. Instead it's almost fascinating.

Things Havoc disliked:  The gimmick here is that the movie is "found footage" of a sort, compiled from cameras mounted in the cops' car, on their uniforms, etc... Unfortunately, rudimentary thinking causes this conceit to fall apart. Sequences wherein the bad guys (a gang of affiliated gangsters trying to ascend the ranks of the cartel) are filmed planning their crimes torpedo the entire premise instantly, as does any one of the many, many shots wherein someone besides the two cops is plainly holding the camera. This break in the immersion isn't terribly jarring, admittedly, but it leads one to ask why the conceit of a film-making project was necessary in the first place.

There's also a couple of sequences that are just not handled terribly well. The gangster that Pena throws down with early on in the film, thus earning respect for having the balls to handle himself, is a bit too heavy-handed. Surely it takes more for a cop to gain the confidence and admiration of a hard-core two-time felon gangster in South Central LA than said cop fighting him man to man and not bolstering the felon's charges for it? There's also the unfortunate addition of Cody Horn as Davis, the Rookie cop, who while she is not in the film terribly much, has an obviously pre-scripted role in the time-honored tradition of Rookie cops in movies. Again, nothing that would be too jarring, save for the overall high level of verisimilitude in the movie in general.

Final thoughts:  Honestly though, that's about all I can complain about here. End of Watch isn't a game-changer for actor or genre the way Training Day was, but it's nonetheless one of the most complete cop films I've ever seen, and my opinion of the movie, high as it was on exiting, has only increased with time. And while I wouldn't say it has made me a fan of Jake Gyllenhaal, if he keeps on making movies like this one, we might get there some day.

Final Score:  7.5/10

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