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‘End of Watch’

by Giovanni Fazio

Is there anything new left to be done with the buddy-cop genre? Probably not, but “End of Watch” gives it a damn good shot. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña star as a couple of LAPD officers who patrol one of Los Angeles’ roughest neighborhoods, Newton Division, where their gung-ho attitude will eventually get them in over their heads. The film is tense as all hell where it should be, funny and touching where you don’t expect it, shot with an incredible amount of brio.

Director David Ayer is perhaps best known as the screenwriter of Oscar-winner “Training Day,” and his latest is a similarly down-and-dirty look at police work. His is an LA that is alien to most of the people in Hollywood, a virtual no-go zone for the glitterati, and hence rarely portrayed on the big screen. Ayer films right in the middle of South Central, an area in which he grew up, and it smells as right and real as the Little Italy of Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” four decades ago.

End of Watch
Rating
Director David Ayer
Run Time 109 minutes
Language English

Ayer has made LA cop films before (“Harsh Times” in 2005 with Christian Bale and “Street Kings” in 2008 with Keanu Reeves) but “End of Watch” is where he gets it right. Making heroes out of the LAPD is a tough job — since the infamous Rodney King beating tape and Rampart scandal of the 1990s, they have been perceived as racist and corrupt — but Ayer has a pair of likable leads, and he gives them plenty of room to develop their characters.

In downtime between calls, hanging out off duty and in an extended wedding sequence (that suggests the director is a big fan of “The Deer Hunter”), Gyllenhaal and Peña deliver a torrent of loose, F-bomb-loaded and mostly improvised banter; the audience gets to know officers Taylor and Zavala and the bond they share, and that means we care when they have to go door-to-door, guns drawn, in a house that stinks of death. These cops are not trigger-happy or bad lieutenants, but just a couple of dudes trying to do their job in a seriously chaotic environment. Their biggest flaw is braggadocio, the feeling that they are bad-ass enough to handle anything the streets can throw at them; this proves to be wrong when they accidentally mess with the cartels from south of the border.

Accentuating the sense of urgency and realism is how Ayer constructs the film entirely out of handheld, clip-on and surveillance digital cameras, allowing for a variety of first-person perspectives. True, Ayer cheats a bit: The film makes a big point out of setting up how Gyllenhaal’s cop is making a doc about life on the beat, but then never really delivers anything from this premise. Similarly, the film’s on-the-fly reality-cam approach is sometimes dropped for the more standard, “neutral” wide shot of the film crew. Aesthetically, “End of Watch” is all over the place, but if it works, then screw theory.

Ayer’s film is a bit of an anachronism, not “Die Hard” super-cops but just recognizably average guys with the balls to take on real-world situations that most of us would rather take a pass on. In a summer full of apocalyptic conflicts between good and evil, pulling a couple of kids out of a burning building might not seem like much, except for the fact that you can really get yourself killed doing that, and “End of Watch” communicates that danger exceptionally well.