Friday, September 21, 2012

Review: End of Watch

Ninety percent of all action movies are just different iterations of the cops and robbers narrative.  Whether it is superheroes, spies, or soldiers, the paradigm remains the same - good guys chasing bad.  While it has been a while since I have found a straight-forward, meat and potatoes, boys-in-blue film to be truly entertaining (The Departed), it doesn’t mean this genre within a genre has become completely obsolete.  End of Watch is good reminder of this.  While I don’t know enough about wielding a gun and shield to say that the film is an accurate portrayal, it is gritty and raw and exudes a sense of authenticity.

The story tracks two partners in the LAPD – Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena) as they work their beat in South Central Los Angeles.  Through a combination of cameras built into the plot and the traditional third person view, we are privy to a slice of their lives as partners and friends as they stumble upon Mexican cartel activity in Los Angeles. 

What works best about this movie is the buddy aspect of the film.  A lot of the plot is driven by the interactions between Gyllenhaal and Pena, establishing their camaraderie and fleshing out the personal aspects of their lives that influence the way they police the streets.  Relatively young and full of bravado, it becomes evident that as their lives mature the sense of invincibility with which they man their jobs can and will eventually erode.  The sense of family they extoll as members of the police force must be balanced by the sense of family that exists in their home and rubbing elbows with ruthless cartel flunkies threatens this equilibrium. 

The movie in tone feels something like Training Day most likely because David Ayer serves as both writer and director.  He does an admirable job though my one complaint is the use of cameras built into the story.  Sure, I am not the biggest fan of overused unsteady cameras, but I particularly found the transition from entrenched cameras to third person shots to be distracting and confusing.  While it may have sacrificed a bit of the grittiness, the movie could have been equally as effective (if not more so) with traditional cinematography and would have lessened the burden of trying to reason the presence of a video camera in nearly every shot.

As for the acting, Gyllenhaal and Pena knock it out of the park.  The strength of the movie is fueled by their relationship as partners and friends and it is left to the two men to construct this visually through banter and verbal exchanges.  The chemistry that the two actors share is impressive and in the scenes where they muse about their lives while driving the streets of L.A., leaves you feeling like you are participating in a genuine ride along.  Gyllenhaal clearly takes on a physical transformation to disappear into the role of a headstrong cop with a military background.   Pena excellently balances this out by playing the heart of this partnership - the married man with a baby on the way who bears a close connection to the streets they patrol.  Not to be lost in the action and drama is the well-timed comedic relief that manifests naturally in the exchanges between the two actors.  It is a necessary layer that truly amps up the feeling of  authenticity.

As for the rest of the cast, Natalie Martinez (Gabby) and Anna Kendrick (Jane) each perform admirably as the significant others of Pena and Gyllenhaal respectively.  Limited in screen time, the actresses do a great job of helping to lay depth to the protagonists and remind the viewers what’s at stake every time the officers take to the streets.  Frank Grillo, David Harbour, and America Ferrera aren’t given much heavy lifting as fellow members of the force, but add another layer to this portrayal of life as a police officer in South Central.  As for the baddies, they are for the most part faceless and at times border on caricatures, but that is more out of necessity than anything else.  This film is about Gyllenhaal’s Taylor and Pena’s Zavala and rightfully so.

If you’re not a fan of unsteady camera work or if you find it gives you headaches of nausea, you may want to wait for this as a rental.  Rarely do you find a perfectly steady shot in this movie.  Otherwise, I would definitely recommend this film for a theatrical viewing.  It is gritty and it is raw and the streets of Los Angeles show well in this regard.  The action is fierce and besides a few hiccups the pacing is brisk and steady.  This isn’t merely a pedal to the floor action flick nor is it huge in scope.  What it is, is a very personal story and one that will leave you feeling as though you really know the characters, and that is the definitive sign of a well-told story.

Standout Performance: Michael Pena does some of his best work to date in this movie displaying a wide acting range seamlessly moving from gravitas to emoting to comedic relief.  In a movie with some very good performances, his is best.


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