Saturday, September 22, 2012

End of Watch / **** (R)

Taylor: Jake Gyllenhaal
Zavala: Michael Peña
Janet: Anna Kendrick
Gabby: Natalie Martinez
Van Hauser: David Harbour
Sarge: Frank Grillo
Orozco: America Ferrera
Big Evil: Maurice Compte
Wicked: Diamonique

Open Road Films presents a film written and directed by David Ayer. Running time: 109 min. Rated R (for strong violence, some disturbing images, pervasive language including sexual references, and some drug use.)

David Ayer’s new LA cop film “End of Watch” opens with a voice over as fascinating as the images that accompany it. We see a point of view shot from a police cruiser camera in a high speed chase with a car in front of it racing through the streets of South Central. We hear the voice of Jake Gyllenhaal, as peace officer Taylor, telling us of the passion of the police officer. He speaks of the officer’s motivation. His will. His duty to the law and to his fellow officers. “I am Fate with a badge and a gun,” he states of his relationship to the criminal. This is the portrait of a man who believes in his job.

The car chase ends in a shootout between the occupants of the car and the two policemen who chased them down. These men are Taylor and his partner Zavala, played by Michael Peña. The shoot out is sudden and violent and handled with great efficiency by the two officers. We see the aftermath. Their adrenaline is up, but they continue diligently with procedure. Back up arrives and is taken aback by the signs of the violence they did not witness. Ayer makes it clear here that this is going to be a police story that concerns itself with the details of the police life that are often left ignored by the Hollywood formula. When the officers are reinstated to duty, their chief both congratulates and reprimands them, saying any shooting is treated as a homicide, even when it involves a cop shooting a perp in the line of duty. This is not something taken as lightly as Hollywood has taken it over the past 10 decades or so.

The movie uses the “found footage” approach to frame the action. While this has become a popular trend among filmmakers today, I’ve begun to question the validity of the reasons writers come up with to employ it. Taylor is taking a filmmaking course in his graduate studies, although the cameras he employs to film he and his partner’s adventures in police work are the only signs we see of his extracurricular activities. However, Ayer doesn’t try to argue that this story is being told exclusively through found footage. He uses pillow shots to set scenes. He uses other characters as amateur filmmakers to set up exposition Taylor could not be aware of, and he never claims his film is anything but a story edited together to show the audience a dramatic narrative. He merely employs the found footage as a way to place the audience in a more intimate position in the police officer’s perspective.

Ayer also refuses to emphasize plot. There is a little plot involving a drug cartel that targets Taylor and Zavala for seizing some of their money and weapons in a couple of routine stops, but for the most part Ayer chooses to simply show us the daily activities of these two men who believe in the law and understand it. They bend it at times, but they are not the typical Hollywood interpretation of cops having to embrace the same animal natures that fuel the criminals they are hunting.

Gyllenhaal (“Source Code”) and Peña (“World Trade Center”) are two of Hollywood’s finest young actors. They imbue Taylor and Zavala with a brotherhood that allows you to believe they would indeed sacrifice themselves for the other. Much of the film depicts almost mundane conversations between the two as they patrol in their squad car. There are times when they annoy each other and times when they joke with each other as if they’re simply construction workers riffing on each other at the work site. Ayer writes their characters so well, you can tell they share the closest relationship in each others lives, even closer than with their own family members.

There are also some personal developments for these two professionals who are as tight as friends when they’re wearing their civies as they are in their uniforms. Taylor, sick of his somewhat swinging lifestyle with women, finally meets a girl that he can actually have a conversation with in Janet (Anna Kendrick, “Up in the Air”). Zavala is getting set to have his first child with his high school sweetheart, Gabby (Natalie Martinez, “Detroit 1-8-7”). However, Ayer never removes the men from their profession. Even their personal relationships are handled with the understanding that they are always cops. This is often how cops are depicted in movies, and I believe it must be so in life for their families to accept the danger they place themselves in on a daily basis.

“End of Watch” is a powerful movie. It is graphic in its detailing of the beat life in one of the most violent communities in our country. This attention to detail carries over in to every aspect of these officers’ lives as cops. The relationships depicted with other officers are almost always professional. For the partners, however, a higher level of commitment to each other is necessary to endure the sights and meticulous procedure of their daily professional lives. Ayer, who has scripted many inferior LA-based cop movies, like “Training Day” and “S.W.A.T.”, has compiled a sort of love letter here to the heroes who do what so many of us could never imagine having to do to keep the rest of us safe. This is one good cop flick.

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