A clock on the cell phone meant end of watch for Appellate Judge Tom Becker.
From the writer of Training Day.
Policing's all about comfortable footwear.
Facts of the Case
Officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal, Brokeback Mountain) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña, Tower Heist) are LAPD partners, patrolling South Central. Every day, it's something—sometimes, something small, like settling a dispute, other times, something much bigger, like rescuing children from an abusive situation.
Cocky, profane, and a little glib, these are good cops. They're not looking to go on "the take," and they don't abuse their position. Zavala, undereducated and married with a child on the way, is settled; Taylor, taking pre-law classes and still unmarried, is a little restless, but more ambitious.
Even though they are streetwise, sometimes their sense of duty—and sense of self—causes them to, perhaps, underestimate how vulnerable they are. They're not reckless, but they're headstrong, and sometimes, it seems, not fully comprehending of just how dangerous their day-to-day lives are.
Here is an extraordinary film made out of pretty ordinary circumstances. The cops here are not superheroes. They are not involved in some intriguing caper. They are not rule breakers. They are not angry, bitter, trigger-happy, or psychotic. These are ordinary men doing a dangerous but ordinary job, and it's this sense of the extraordinary ordinary that police officers face daily that makes End of Watch so powerful.
This is a violent film—a very violent film, disturbingly so—but it's not a film that celebrates violence. The violence here is ugly and base. There are no elegant, beautifully choreographed gun battles or rousing scenes of action with our heroes basking in victory; in fact, in one of the few scenes in which there is victory-basking, it's not because they brought down armed criminals, but because they saved children from peril.
Stylistically, the film is a bit of a hard sell. Director David Ayer (Harsh Times) shoots this almost entirely handheld; he also incorporates "other" sources, such as the cop car dashboard cams, surveillance cams, cell cams, and cameras that Taylor carries around as part of a film class project. The edits are also sometimes jarring, often pulling a few frames here and there out of a scene, jump-cutting for no apparent reason. It's an interesting technique, and an interesting commentary—almost everything is on camera now, right?—but it's also too obvious; while it initially gives the film a sense of immediacy, after a while, it becomes distracting.
Despite its 21st century trappings, End of Watch, in many ways, is a throw-back to the '70s, that great era of cop movies; in fact, it's far better than The Seven-Ups, The New Centurions, and many other "now-classics" of the genre from that period. It carries the vibe and the soul of those long-ago existentialist cop actioners, but with a deeper appreciation for characters and context.
That it works so well, and so much better than many of its antecedents, is due in no small part to its leads. Gyllenhaal and Peña beautifully embody "cop brotherhood," their easy rapport feeling wholly natural, playful and affectionate. Gyllenhaal, with his buzzed head and sometimes unshaved face, looks nothing like a movie star here, and he easily shares the screen with the capable Peña. The actors were given room to improvise, and much of their dialogue when they're in their police car is ad-libbed.
We get to know these characters pretty well. Both are serious-minded young men; neither is a crazy prankster, deeply conflicted, or particularly colorful. In fact, their goals away from the job are modest; Zavala is getting ready to start a family, and Taylor is trying to find a woman worth settling down with. It's encouraging to see an "action" film that features focused, mature characters. That's not to say they're dull—not at all, just very recognizable, and very human.
Clearly, Ayer was aiming higher than the usual "action movie" demographic of young male moviegoers. There's heft to this film—emotional, social, and political—and it never talks down or plays it up for the expected audience (we even get a joke about Liberace, which might send a few 20-something-year-old action fans on a Google quest). Despite the profanity ("guy talk") and pervasive ugliness, Ayer crafts his film with a lot of affection for his protagonists, and for the police in general. He knows these people, and except for an unfortunate plot misstep, the characters and situations ring true more often than they don't. It's an effective film and an affecting one.
End of Watch (Blu-ray) comes to us from Universal sporting a solid 1.85/1080p transfer that probably looks as good as it looked in theaters. Because of the various footage sources, it never looks "great," but then, I doubt that it ever did. The DTS Surround track is great, with voices, music, and ambient sounds perfectly balanced.
Universal's disc offers a solid array of supplements: a commentary by Ayers, a whole passel of deleted scenes, and some short, EPK-style featurettes. There is also a DVD and instructions for a digital download.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For most of its runtime, End of Watch is about two cops and their routine—like the Seinfeld of cop movies, a film about "nothing" that's really about everything. About mid-way through, the officers find out—pretty inadvertently—that their activities have put them in greater danger than even most street cops face.
Unfortunately, this subplot ends up being the prime dramatic motivator in the film, and frankly, it's contrived from the start. A scene in which we learn—through surveillance cameras—about the extent of the danger is the most dishonest moment in the film, frustrating the raw, docu-like feel of what went before.
It's a shame that a film that in some ways makes a point of not being sensationalistic ends up quagmired with a resolution that seems culled from other movies rather than real life.
While there are certainly problems with End of Watch, they are outweighed by the film's strengths, including well-drawn characters brought to life by fine central performances, an overall solid attention to realism, and a knowing—and surprising—level of sensitivity.
End of Watch might not be a clever movie, but it's an intelligent one, and well worth checking out.
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