END OF WATCH is one of the most intense, adrenaline-fueled, heart-pounding experiences you’ll have at the movies this year, and one hell of a cop movie to boot. David Ayer, the mind behind such LAPD-driven films like TRAINING DAY (which he wrote), HARSH TIMES and STREET KINGS (the latter two which he directed), has put all his experience in the police arena to good use, showing that persistence does in fact pay off when you’re trying to finally get something right. He’s been involved with five different law enforcement films up to now, and, even with the Oscar win Denzel Washington claimed from TRAINING DAY, in addition to Ethan Hawke’s supporting nom, none of them have felt anywhere near as complete or engaging as END OF WATCH.
Using a POV-style supported by a variety of cameras – handheld, dashboard, lapel – Ayer is able to give you a fly on the wall look at the daily comings and goings that a pair of L.A. beat cops in gangland have to encounter, both on the job and off. It may be a little far-fetched at first as to why the camera is there in the first place, but Ayer manages to overcome what would be a distraction in a lesser film by focusing all your attention on two exceptional lead characters that you feel you really know by the end of the film, and, as a result, care a great deal about. The camera usage is a means to an end in order to place the viewer as close to being in a cop’s comfortable footwear as possible, and, because it works in making you a part of that experience, it’s easy to forgive and forget the rationale for its very existence. There’s only one instance of extreme shaky-cam during an early fight scene, which becomes extraordinarily difficult to follow, but once END OF WATCH gets on the other end of that sequence, the method of shooting becomes absorbed into the film seamlessly and becomes a strong asset for the film. It’s as if you’re watching an extended episode of COPS, only with higher stakes, less white trash nudity and far more personality.
Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña play Officers Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala respectively, a couple of hotshot cops whose detail is right smack in the middle of South Central. However, the film treats them as more than just partners. These aren’t guys who just shake hands and say good-bye to each other at the end of their shifts, going home to whatever secluded life they have on their own or with their families. END OF WATCH is able to capture this brotherhood that exists among cops, where wearing a badge makes you a part of an extended family. Taylor and Zavala may not be blood relatives, but they might as well be, as evidenced by the constant bickering and ball busting that only the closest of friends or brothers would dish out to each other. The chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Peña is really at the crux of what makes END OF WATCH such a superb cop movie, because chasing bad guys and tracking down criminals and potentially cartel members takes a backseat to their relationship with one another. There’s a sense of realism to their interactions and dialogue that END OF WATCH often feels less like a film and more like a glimpse into this world where two police officers are just trying to do their job and do it well. They joke with and poke fun at each other whenever the opportunities present themselves, but when it’s time to get down to business, you have no hesitation in believing that one would lay down their life for their other. They’ve got each others’ backs at all times, from covering each other on a high-speed chase to dealing love advice. Money, guns and dope may be the three major food groups when they’re in the car, but, when they’re home, it’s all about love – platonic love for each other, love for their marriage or a blossoming romance with Anna Kendrick and love for the rest of their fellow officers.
This is hands-down Michael Peña’s best work. He’s made a career living in the background as a solid character actor who blends into a film’s environment effortlessly as whoever he’s needed to be, but, in END OF WATCH, Peña gets the chance to really shine as the emotional heart of the movie. Gyllenhaal may be the face of the film for obvious reasons, and he turns in an incredible performance as well, but without Peña’s ability to give Officer Zavala a quick sense of humor or his vast array of wisdom or a heroic instinct that just comes naturally with the job, I don’t know that the partnership would have worked as well. His chemistry with Gyllenhaal is off the charts, and is the perfect example of the magic that sometimes occurs when you just put two actors together and they fit perfectly with each’s strengths hiding the other’s weaknesses and vice versa. Mix that with strong supporting performances from Kendrick, America Ferrera, David Harbour and Frank Grillo, and you have a film that never lets up or shows very many mistakes.
There are inherently buddy cop elements in putting a Caucasian and a Mexican cop together on patrol, mostly in their cultural differences being brought to light as a source of ridicule for each other, but those light moments only serve as a way to bring down the intensity of the film before David Ayer turns up the heat a bit more in the next action beat. There’s an inherent danger and risk at all times that comes with the job, and Ayer is able to keep that present throughout END OF WATCH. You never get the sense that anyone is ever safe during the film, and it wouldn’t be out of the question for one of our beloved officers to go down at any time. What looks like a routine traffic stop could be anything but; however, we won’t know until a gun is pulled in the blink of an eye, and the shit really hits the fan. Because of that, there’s a thrilling uneasiness that pervades the entire film. There’s no telling what’s going to happen next, and that allows END OF WATCH to not only dig its claws into you but to increase your pulse along the way.
This is the first real cop movie in a long time that delivers, with the autheniticy making a true difference between this and just about every other cop flick that's come along in the last few years. This isn’t your typical mismatched cop comedy, and it certainly does a lot to move past the perception that all cops are dicks, too. It gives you a very honest look at the difficulties of job, whether it’s protecting and serving the peace or personally dealing with some of the horrors they witness regularly, seeing mankind at its worst. There is nothing crooked about the film, as it deals with a couple of good guys simply going to work without asking for any special recognition for what they do.There’s plenty of action to keep END OF WATCH from feeling as if nothing’s happening, but the moments in between shared by Gyllenhaal and Peña are what elevate this film into the upper echelon of cop movies.
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