Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Two Days 'Til Retirement

In a weekend where there were four major theatrical releases, at least two high-ceiling limited releases and one major expansion into wide release, there's one reason that people didn't go out and enjoy Dredd, an excellent genre flick which sadly finished in sixth place at the box office and hasn't gotten the love it deserves. It wasn't House at the End of the Street or The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which mostly attracted young women. It wasn't Trouble with the Curve, which appealed mainly to older folks. And it wasn't The Master, which is more like Oscar bait than blockbuster. No, for a film appealing mainly to young men, Dredd was hampered by the fact that most of their potential audience was instead down the hall with End of Watch. This movie is perfectly in director David Ayer's wheel house. The writer/director has been basing his stories in Los Angeles for over a decade, and he's best known for the man who wrote Training Day, which won Denzel Washington an Oscar and is this century's epitome of Los Angeles crime drama. All this time later, and Ayer still has stories to tell about the LAPD, though thankfully they're not all about corruption and scandal, as he proves here.

Just another day in the office.
Police officers and best friends, Officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena) are two of the hottest shots, regularly seen patrolling the worst areas of South Central Los Angeles. End of Watch details their close friendship, rivalries and pranks with other officers, and their everyday lives, which include Zavala's expecting a child with wife Gabby (Natalie Martinez) and Taylor's burgeoning romance with a Janet (Anna Kendrick), whom he meets at school. When the duo discover an even darker side to the city in the form of the Mexican drug cartels, Taylor and Zavala find themselves on the wrong side of Hispanic gangs that have lately been rising in prominence in the area. One night, that brewing conflict will all come to a very violent conclusion

No, ma'am, this isn't Magic Mike.
Strangely, though, that finale really takes its time to come around, meaning that most of the first two acts of the film are not intensely focused on the cartels but the everyday challenges of being a beat cop in LA. Having had a grandfather on the force in Atlantic City, I appreciate how the movie took care to present the men and women of the law as normal people with families and problems and times both good and bad. Ayer humanizes his heroes, and while they're considered among the best of their class, Taylor and Zavala are still unpredictable, prone to both mistakes and heroics. Most importantly, they're men who love their jobs, which makes it incredibly easy to root for them.

Paperwork: the stuff that keeps the world spinning.
Ayer also makes an effort to portray the story from a gritty, street-level perspective. To that end, he has incorporated the popular "found footage" method by showing the footage as being recorded by the two officers via a handicam and some fairly sophisticated flash cameras attached to their uniforms, all as part of a college project for Taylor. It does a great job of making much of the film feel natural and off the cuff, but it does present its own set of problems. For one, while it's feasible for some police helicopter footage to make its way into the film to present a sense of scale, some of the movie contains far less likely cam footage, for instance from the perspective of the Latino gang that just happens to be recording their own misdeeds at the same time as our heroes. It's far less natural than the police footage, and gives far too much away, as I would have preferred more mysterious and less predictable antagonists. Also, the found footage attempt turns in a few clunkers, as more than a few occasions see scenes apparently not captured by anybody's camera, but are shot just the same. Ayer is quoted as saying (in an interview on Open Letters Monthly) that if you're wondering who is carrying the camera, then he lost you. Well, as a critic, he did lose me. It wasn't often, but occasionally my thought process turned to the fact that nobody could have been casually shooting at a certain moment. Thankfully, those were few and far between, and most of the camera efforts were done well enough to escape serious scrutiny.

...And there was much rejoicing.
Of course, none of this would have been worth anything if not for the excellent acting and chemistry of leads Gyllenhall and Pena. Ayer did a great job preparing the two actors for their constant partnership throughout the film, and it really shows in their ability to bounce seemingly random things off one another from scene to scene while still remaining relevant to the story. Gyllenhaal has struggled to define himself in modern Hollywood, going from young talent to pseudo action star to the character-driven performances in which he often excels. While he has sometimes struggled with consistency, that doesn't happen here, and he brings his special brand of intensity that often worms its way into his best work. Pena meanwhile has always been excellent, while not necessarily getting the choicest roles (the lot of Latinos in the movie industry, unfortunately). Still, he's often the best part of even bad movies, and he rewards Ayer's confidence in him by simply being the most wonderful, animated thing on the screen at any given time. Together the pair's antics are as authentic as anything I've seen in theaters this year, and their interaction with the surrounding landscape looks completely natural and familiar. While the film mainly centers around its leads, the pair get a lot of support from Kendrick and Martinez, as well as Frank Grillo, America Ferrera, Cody Horn and David Harbour as their fellow officers.'s the bad news...
The only real problem with End of Watch is its mess of an ending, which is almost completely predictable if you actually pay attention to the story (or the trailers, for that matter), and understand the usual cop movie cliches. This isn't really a surprise, as Ayer seems to like his tragedy-laden final acts, and to be fair it really doesn't feel out of place in the grand scheme of things. But for once I would love to be surprised, and Ayer just isn't the director who is going to do that for me. End of Watch is still an inspired production, with much more to like than not. Ayer needs to up his writing skills though, especially if he's going to keep working around treatments of the same subject matter. While I still believe Dredd is the best option for you action lovers in theaters right now, End of Watch is a more than solid second option while awaiting Looper's release this coming weekend.

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