Saturday, September 22, 2012

Boys in Blue: END OF WATCH

In many ways a fairly standard cop movie, End of Watch follows two Los Angeles policemen through harrowing shifts in South Central, cutting glimpses into their personal lives between the episodic job-centric moments. That’s not a whole lot more than what you’d get on, say, an episode of the far-too-little-seen TNT show Southland, but this film differentiates itself by being violent and aesthetically muddy. It starts with the pretense that what we’re seeing is shot on consumer-grade video by the two men as part of one’s night school project. That’s dropped soon enough, though, hopping into conventional wobbly-cam style that still jumps into subjective shaking footage from time to time. The weaving, spinning camerawork charges right into every dangerous situation, moments that are filled with dread as sudden bloody messes can crop up around every corner.

Written and directed by David Ayer (he wrote Antoine Fuqua’s electrifying cop thriller Training Day, for which Denzel Washington won an Oscar), this film sticks to a ground level point of view. It’s narrow, filled with characters that are barely more than cliché on the page, but this visceral B-movie burrows into the chemistry between the two leads in a satisfyingly casual way. It’s convincing and occasionally riveting. The two cops at the center of it all are played with nice commitment from Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña, who joke with each other commiserate about women, and tense up heading off on a new call. Ayer’s writing and the actor’s total ease in their roles leads to an absorbing sense of what it must be like to go to work each day not knowing if you’ll have a dull day of office hijinks and hanging out with a friend or if you’ll be in a situation where you’ll be wondering about the next horrible thing you’ll be witnessing.

It all seems scary and tense to me, but as two cops driving every day through rough neighborhoods, they’re kind of used to it. Though there are drive-by shootings, missing kids, fires, murders, and cops and criminals alike jostling for turf, this is essentially a hang out movie. We follow Gyllenhaal and Peña as they drive around, the camera sitting on the dashboard, pointing back at the two of them. They talk and joke and drive, waiting for the next call to action. They’re funny without being overwritten, flawed in relatable, human ways without becoming fascist monsters, crooked cops, or overzealous frat boy policemen. They’re just two ambitious, but unhurried, guys trying to do their jobs. They have fun being with each other, but they take their jobs seriously.

When they’re not working, we see their personal lives. Gyllenhaal’s sweet on his latest girlfriend (Anna Kendrick) while Peña and his wife (Natalie Martinez) are getting ready for the birth of their first child. There’s an instantly sympathetic portrait of duty and matter-of-fact romance in these scenes, a sense that these men are as committed to their relationships at home as they are to their relationships on the job. In addition to strong performances from the leads and their significant others, the film is much benefited by a supporting cast of co-workers (Frank Grillo, America Ferrera, David Harbour, and Cody Horn among them) that can quickly sketch in professionalism and world-weary banter that helps makes this world feel grounded. There’s a sense of reality to the way these characters behave and interact for which all the handheld camerawork in the world can’t substitute.

Unfortunately, Ayer stumbles on his way to a conclusion. Though entertaining and involving throughout, the episodic nature with discrete, unrelated moment police business, eschews a natural endpoint. Creating one can’t help but feel forced. Ayer has threaded throughout the picture a severely malnourished parallel story about dehumanized gang members who scowl and rant in Spanglish and glower at authority. Unlike the kindness with which the leads are drawn and the sympathy with which the somewhat-clichéd supporting characters are fleshed out, these criminals are cut-and-dried bad to the bone. It makes for a sense of dread that imbues the film’s final moments with white-knuckle sensation, but the visceral moment feels a little empty. It’s the emptiness of a promising movie ending in a conventional shootout.

That’s indicative of the whole experience, though. Ayer has created a film content to do routine things competently rather than stake out new territory of its own, serving up cop movie cliché with slight shadings through tense vignettes and capable acting. The film is often effective and affecting despite considerable drawbacks. It’s more emotion and sensation than pure narrative (which has a distinct feeling of been-there-done-that about it) and either way it’s grubbily told, but it’s narrow, small-scale approach and focused performances keep it from falling apart too much.

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