Gimmicks rarely get movies off to a good start. As soon as you see a trailer for a film that uses either a handicam or found footage or anything in that vein, it’s normally followed up by scoffing, or at the very least, a shaking of the head. It’s been done well before (see: Cloverfield) but in recent history it’s proven to be a bad idea to center a movie around a character who happens to be holding a video camera. End of Watch, the newest film from Training Day writer David Ayer, uses that gimmick to its advantage, allowing us to be along for the ride with two LAPD officers, played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña with a brotherly love rivaled by few couples I can remember. The film is a gripping tale that showcases two actors at the top of their game, resulting in one of the best cop-centric films in recent memory.
Jake Gyllenhaal delivers his best performance to date as Brian Taylor, an arrogant sonofabitch. I feel like Gyllenhaal is a relatively forgotten commodity in Hollywood. Looking at his track record, two-thirds of his movies have received positive reviews from critics (12/17 are at least at 60% on Rotten Tomatoes) and for my money, his performances have only gotten better over time. My previously favorite Gyllenhaal role was as Anthony Swofford in Jarhead, where he played a similarly scarred, arrogant hard-ass. It was the apparent against-type acting that did it for me, as ol’ Jake would not appear to many to be all that intimidating or tough, for that matter (being the bottom in Brokeback Mountain probably didn’t help that appearance, either, although he is equally on point in that film too). But in both Jarhead and End of Watch, he carries himself with such a strong, confident demeanor that it’s impossible not to be impressed. I find it unlikely that this will be recognized around awards season but his performance is filled with the highs and lows that Oscar-winning performances normally have, and I know I would certainly support a nomination at the very least.
Michael Peña brings it consistently as his partner Mike Zavala, who is softer spoken but equally hot-headed. The two of them have such an intense chemistry, that it is not hard to imagine that they have been partners for as long as the characters have. Peña is a character actor who has averaged two movies a year since he broke out in 2005′s Crash (his being my favorite of the stories), including six films alone in 2011. He has shown comedic range in films like Observe and Report and 30 Minutes or Less and done the straight action stuff like Battle: Los Angeles but his forte is serious dramas, as he has proven to be reliable in films like Million Dollar Baby, Lions for Lambs, The Lincoln Lawyer, and now this.
The film revolves around these two men as they patrol the streets of south central Los Angeles. As an L.A. resident, it’s always interesting/fun/enjoyable to watch a film set in our beautiful city. However, this time around, it’s the darkest of dark that we see, as the officers, benefiting from the fact that they’re written to become all-stars within their unit so they must find all of the horrible shit going on out there, come across some really awful stuff. There really isn’t a time-table for the film, so it’s not like these guys are stumbling upon career-making finds every day, but they do happen to ride a hot streak for awhile and their performances and bravery earn them accolades from the city. Unfortunately for the guys, their success is at the expense of a Mexican drug cartel that’s not so happy to have these hot-shot cops treading on their territory. There’s even a point when the officers get warned from a specialist that, while their service is appreciated, it might be wise to cool it off for a bit, as they might be getting in over their heads.
But, despite their family lives being important (Zavala is married to his high school sweetheart and has a baby on the way while Taylor graduates from ladies man to married man, thanks to the appearance of Anna Kendrick who continues being awesomely cute and charming) the two continue to play detective and begin to find out that they might indeed be biting off more than they can chew. The film is cut in such a way that one minute we are just along for the ride in their car as they patrol the city, listening to them humorously bash each other, and the next they’re responding to a call or chasing down a suspicious looking pick-up truck. Although there isn’t a solid story per se, the film moves quickly and it is all due to the two actors at the top of their game, showcasing what buddy cops can be like.
I had high hopes for the film, mostly thanks to Ayer’s involvement, and it absolutely delivered on its promise of a new-look cop flick. Sure, it might abuse the hand-held camera thing a bit (Taylor has the camera on him, he says, for a class he’s taking – the class is never discussed beyond that point, so it’s a bit of a stretch, but I can easily look past something like that) as it also incorporates lapel cameras on both the principals and the cartel coincidentally also has someone who carries around a camera (maybe he’s a classmate!) but sometimes, it’s not how we’re watching footage, but why we are. I’m a sucker for this genre, mainly because I wish that I had the courage to serve and protect in the way that these men do. They show off a bit, yes, and Taylor in particular is about as self-assured as you can get, but if you’re not cocky enough to think that you can stop a bad guy from doing what he wants, then you have no business being out there.
End of Watch is rough, gritty, and overall a welcome addition to the genre. Ayer has the green light as far as I’m concerned when it comes to anything involving the city of angels and Gyllenhaal and Peña both impressed in their respective roles. The film is equally funny as it is serious (a surprising number of laughs come from their potentially banal conversations since their delivery makes even the most primitive humor laugh-out-loud funny) and the action scenes are shot very well, bringing me to the front of my chair several times. Ultimately, the film was going to succeed (or not) based on the performances of the two men on the poster and they deliver in so many ways. Their chemistry carries what could have been a monotonous 100+ minutes and turns it into something much more memorable. From the opening scene, Ayer’s script grabs your attention and doesn’t let it go until all is said and done, avoiding the pratfalls of not only handicam films, but also of cop films, resulting in a fantastic film that, if not for my great love of Safety Not Guaranteed, would be my top film so far of 2012.