'End of Watch' Is Worth Watching
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Commandeering yet another police car to exploit dangerous days and ways in L.A.'s South Central badlands, David Ayer ("Training Day") drives deep in "End of Watch." Sadly, deep for Ayer is pretty shallow. What saves this cop show from its predictable tropes and cliches are terrific performances by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena, who've got each other's backs as actors and as "brothers" in law enforcement. The rhythms of their bone-deep affection, played out in banter and in brutal action scenes, keep "End of Watch" moving and save it from entirely bogging down in Hollywood-macho vignettes of good guys going up against trash-talkin' ghetto dregs.
Ayer's a sucker for the stylistic fallacy spawned by "Blair Witch Project" and "Paranormal Activity": the lazy notion (already old hat) that an unmanned camera, the mechanical eye, automatically ensures documentary reality and immediacy. So most of "Watch"'s action is caught on patrol-car cams, cellphone cameras, lapel video recorders -- a supremely irritating gimmick that batters the viewer with crazily dipping and bobbing camerawork. Messy and uncomposed doesn't equal realism, but that approach is convenient cover for flat-out not knowing how to shape and move and give organic life to cinematic fictions.
Riding along with cops Brian Taylor (Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena), we're often perched down under the dash to viddy the easy give-and-take between these very different comrades. Taylor's an ex-Marine, clearly a striver in love and work. His shaved head and sculpted features contrast with his less driven Hispanic partner's softer, darker face. Their talk -- funny, raunchy, serious -- ranges through love, sex, police work, family values, their cultural differences. Both are young, learning from each other about how a man lives honorably and survives on the job. Effortlessly, Gyllenhaal and Pena enact authentic friendship, the kind of camaraderie that looks casual but is cemented in stone.
Whatever's going on around the two partners -- increasingly implausible plot developments, stereotypical villainy -- looks better for their being there. The sympathy and goodwill Gyllenhaal and Pena generate spills over to their women, who are given scant room for character development. Zavala's wife (Natalie Martinez) is a no-nonsense madonna who plucked her husband out of a dead-end life and made a man of him. When Taylor falls for a feisty girl (Anna Kendrick) he can actually talk to when sex is done, Zavala's "familia" enlarges to take the new couple in.
Family is fortress in "End of Watch," whether at home or on the job among other men in uniform. Ayer paints the subhumans who cower inside South Central's little box-houses, their doors and windows barred and curtained, as adrift or locked-in perverted versions of family life: little kids abused by drugged-out Mom and Dad; an old lady, somebody's mother, suspiciously out of touch; bodies hacked and stacked. A Mexican gang swells its sense of power and significance by shooting up a black enclave; "mama" is a stone-cold killer and lesbian, "father" is a monstrous, mindless bully. Ayer positions this retrograde family schematically, the prime threat to our boys, nocturnal demons putting the hurt on angels in blue.
In real cop life, boredom rules: Nothing happens for long stretches of time. "End of Watch" is all peak experiences: Every call turns out to be dramatic, important, an opportunity for heroism. However much we might prefer the pleasure of listening to and watching two gifted actors build character from the ground up, the movie forces us into improbable melodrama and heavy-duty pathos. In Ayer's world, it's not enough to be human. Only Sturm und Drang, not to mention cameras tilting and jerking every which way, can confer meaningful reality. In the end, you feel manipulated, cosseted into genuinely caring about these valuable young men and their families as prelude to putting them in the grimmest danger. That danger doesn't grow naturally out of the story, their risky occupation, as it would in TV's excellent "Southland"; it's just a turn of the emotional screw that you see coming from the get-go.
Gyllenhaal and Pena make "End of Watch" worth seeing. The sweet, deep soulfulness of Gyllenhaal's expressions makes you remember how much this actor is capable of, given a director and movie worth his salt. Even the mechanical eye that frames "End of Watch" can't falsify that reality.
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.