Mark Reviews Movies

End of Watch


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: David Ayer

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Peña, Natalie Martinez, Anna Kendrick, David Harbour, Frank Grillo

MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence, some disturbing images, pervasive language including sexual references, and some drug use)

Running Time: 1:49

Release Date: 9/21/12

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 20, 2012

The Los Angeles Police Department has gotten a bad rap for a long time, although based on the numerous scandals, it's not difficult to see why. Here, though, is a film that more than likely accurately portrays the attitudes and behavior of a majority of the men and women who put on a badge to patrol the streets of the City of Angels. The corrupt cops get the headlines; the good ones, like the ones in End of Watch, might get a medal in an overlooked and quickly forgotten ceremony. If they're lucky, they'll get a pension after a long and difficult career.

End of Watch gives the impression of an almost entirely thankless job and hints at the daily slog of paperwork and taking calls that are far from exciting. Since this is not a low-key film, though, when our heroes respond to a dispatch call about a checking on an elderly woman because her welfare check has gone uncashed, it's only a matter of time before they uncover some grisly scene that ties into the overarching plot about a ruthless drug cartel attempting to seize control of territory. The sequence, like several in the film, is unnerving. The protagonists suggest that a police officer in L.A. will see more action in one shift than cops in most precincts will see in their entire career. These two see more over the course of a few shifts than that.

Officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña) are not perfect; they can be immature and violent when necessary. Mike gets into a fight with a man (Cle Sloan) who was drunk outside a liquor store, but at least he plays somewhat by the rules. He takes off his badge, and when they arrest the man, Mike doesn't charge him with assaulting a police officer. After all, he's as much to blame for the situation coming to blows as the civilian—if not more so. The man respects that and even spreads the word to his friends. That doesn't mean they'll be friends; when they run into each other again, Mike keeps his gun out of sight below the window of the patrol car—just in case.

They show some restraint, too, like when the two stop a hulking man from beating another cop. "Why didn't you shoot him," another officer asks; "Maybe I didn't feel like killing someone tonight," Brian replies. We know from the opening scene, a car chase captured entirely from the dashboard camera of their car, that they aren't opposed to deadly force. When their sergeant (Frank Grillo) announces that the incident has been cleared as a "good shooting," they don't show any remorse; perhaps that moment—much later in the film—is it.

The opening sequence sets the method of the rest of the film, as writer/director David Ayer and cinematographer Roman Vasyanov shoot the film in a faux-vérité style that is meant to represent Brian's documentary project for a film class he's taking as an elective on his way to a law degree (He calls his police work his "day job"). Once one gets past the obvious artifice and lack of internal logic in the execution of the gimmick (The film only establishes three cameras—four if one counts the dashboard one—but uses plenty more than Brian's handheld one and the ones on Brian and Mike's lapels; a dialogue-heavy briefing scene is an effective intermediary for finding our bearings), it lends some legitimate immediacy to the proceedings.

The narrative is an episodic ride-along with Brian and Mike as they answer calls on the radio and encounter one task after another. The plot revolves around the chaos caused by the Curbside Gang, who make their first appearance in a drive-by shooting to make a statement about their power over some turf in South Central L.A. and wind up in the employ of a drug cartel in Mexico that wants to hold a monopoly on the drug trade in the city proper. Brian and Mike find themselves in the center of their illegal activity quite often over the course of the film.

The plot is secondary to establishing Brian and Mike's partnership and their lives outside of the job. Brian became a cop after serving in the Marines; Mike became one after his wife Gabby (Natalie Martinez), whom he married straight out of high school, told him to in order to have a steady income. Brian meets and quickly falls for Janet (Anna Kendrick).

While Brian and Mike spend a lot of time joking and playfully ribbing each other, there is genuine love between them, and they realize just how much is at risk and the need to watch each other's backs (That extends to the entire force; their annoyance with a lazy cop (David Harbour) is immediately sidelined when his career comes to a particularly gruesome end). Gyllenhaal and Peña are fine in playing their respective roles, but it's in portraying the camaraderie between the two men—a sense of being a unit instead of separate individuals—that anchors the film.

End of Watch moves inexorably toward a big shootout with the gang but earns its exchange of bullets by focusing on the personal stakes of the characters. The film has at least one coda too many (The second betrays the impact of the finale to a questionable degree), and one is left wondering just how much greater of an effect the film could have if it maintained the courage of its logical conclusion.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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