Thursday, September 20, 2012

Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña light up David Ayer's hero-cop film END OF WATCH

What a pleasant surprise it is to watch unfurl END OF WATCH, the new movie about a couple of naturally heroic cops who work Los Angeles' South Central area. The surprise is especially meaningful as the film's writer/director, David Ayer (shown below), has also given us some other movies about cops in Los Angeles -- Training Day (screenwriter), Street Kings (director), Dark Blue (screenwriter) -- in which many, if not most, of the police were dirty and dirtier.

TrustMovies grew up in the Los Angeles area, and his understanding of and experience with the police there tend toward the darker side of things, so while he had no trouble believing much of Ayer's sleaze-filled scenarios, he found it unexpectedly bracing, even moving to see the skill, intelligence and camaraderie that seem second-nature to the two fine actors playing the cops-at-work here: Jake Gyllenhaal, (below, right) as the rowdy, smart, white-bread Brian Taylor, and Michael Peña (below, left) as his quieter but no less savvy Mexican-Ameri-can partner, Mike Zavala.

Mr. Ayer has constructed his movie mostly as a kind of day (or several of them) in the life of these two cops, as they patrol South Central, an area that was once almost entirely black but has, over the past decades, changed its complexion to a lighter brown. Now, Black and Hispance gangs fight it out, using high-end weaponry (notes Mike, about one amazing instrument, shown above and on the poster, top, "It looks like it belonged to Liberace").

As the two take some hits (and yes, kill a few people, too), spar verbally with each other (this interplay is beautifully written and acted) and occasionally get serious (this, too, is well presented), we learn a little about each of the men but never so much as to overload the narrative with undue baggage. As a writer, Ayer seems particularly adept at this kind of balance.

As a director, he and his cinematographer, Roman Vasyanov, use hand-held to nearly the breaking point, putting us up close to the people and action about as well as I have seen done so far. We're with our guys at work, chasing criminals, rescuing a family from a fire (above: this is one of the high points of the film), and getting into some major trouble (below) -- all of which keeps, toe-wise, the cops on theirs and us on ours.

Interspersed with all this is the love-and-family life of the two. Brian has begun dating a girl he really likes (for a change), played by Anna Kendrick (below, right), with her usual charm and flash.

Mike is married, with a pregnant wife -- the lovely Natalie Martinez, shown below, post-birth. If the film were simply all these guys, all the time, it would have been one of the best cop flicks ever, I believe. But Ayer has a real problem with the construction of his movie, particularly regarding point-of-view. The POV initially is all about -- and with -- our boys. Suddenly, there's a scene in which they do not appear at all, and we're driving along with a nut-job Latino gang. This plays itself out, a little oddly, for obvious plot purposes down the line, no doubt. Sure enough, that's what happens. But it thoroughly breaks our concentration and attention -- while calling unwanted attention to itself and its rather ham-handed entrance.

But this is nothing compared to what is to come: Toward the end we get an out-of-the-blue (via some green/nighttime video footage) conversation from an upper echelon member of a drug cartel, whom we haven't seen before and will not see again, ordering a hit. This is pure, dumb exposition of a sort that belongs in some other movie -- and not one as well-made as End of Watch often is. These two instances do hurry the plot along but they are so clunky and out of place that they destroy, for a time, the film's veracity.

Surely Ayer could have found a way to work this stuff in more organically, the way he did a scene in which our guys stumble upon a storage site for human trafficking, and they (and we) learn a little about what is going on from a much higher-level member of government law enforcement. That scene works because our cops are part of it and we're experiencing it along with them.

Certain other things rankle. Are Latino gangs made up of simply the world's worst marksmen-and-women? It would seem so, on the basis of what we see here. As the movie draws to a close, the cliches begin to pile up. The finale of the film only works because of its two lead actors, who are here giving career-best performances. Because of this, we'll expect, I think, a whole lot more out of them in the years to come.

End of Watch, from Open Road Films, opens this Friday, September 21, all over the place. In Manhattan alone, the film will be playing in ten theaters. But try to find any listing of playdates and theaters on the movie's web site, or that of Open Road, and you're out of luck. But keep looking. For all its flaws, this movie is very much worth experiencing.

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