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Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012 04:04 pm

Realism makes Watch one of year’s best films

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Cop movies are a dime a dozen and writer/director David Ayer has done more than his fair share to keep the genre alive. Having written the Oscar-winning Training Day, and the Kurt Russell feature Dark Blue, as well as directed Street Kings, the filmmaker has specialized in bringing a degree of authenticity to his work that makes other directors’ versions of “realism” seem like something shot on a studio back lot. Having grown up on the mean streets of Los Angeles, Ayer knows of what he speaks. It is more than evident in his latest and best film to date, End of Watch, a hard-hitting feature that follows the day-to-day lives of two beat cops who have yet to become completely hardened by the tragedies they witness each day. They are somehow able to maintain a sound moral code in the face of chaos.

The film eschews the normal structure of the cop procedural. It focuses on officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena), partners who have a sense of loyalty toward one another that’s the only thing that separates them from the animals on the street. The film doesn’t set out to have them solve a single case. It covers a period of some 18 months, over which we see them respond to a myriad of calls, each of which underscores their tenuous existence on the streets they’ve sworn to protect. Some of their actions are questionable; others cast them as heroes, while still others have potentially tragic consequences. Ayer’s intent is to present a microcosm of a street officer’s experiences. It’s a dark portrait, one that casts the police in not only a positive light but a tragic one as well.

Over the course of the film, Taylor ends up meeting a bright young woman (Anna Kendrick) who proves to be his equal, so much so that he contemplates settling down with her. Zavala and his faithful wife (Natalie Martinez) start their own family in earnest. All of this adds a human element, as it increases the tension. They end up having so much more to lose each time they hit the streets.

Ayer does a wonderful job capturing the grit and violence of Los Angeles. The sense of place is palpable. Part of this is achieved through his use of small digital cameras that are attached to each of the officer’s uniforms, as the conceit is that Taylor is taking a filmmaking course and wants to shoot footage to be used for a class assignment. While it’s a gimmick that proves problematic at times (you end up questioning throughout just where certain shots are coming from), the intimacy the cameras bring to the action proves effective, putting us in the middle of things in a way few films have.

However, the strongest aspect of the film is the chemistry between the two stars. I’m not sure how much time Gyllenhaal and Pena spent together off screen, or if they were friends beforehand, but the camaraderie on display between the two of them is so genuine. You believe it when they utter such hoary lines as, “I’d take a bullet for you.” The conversations they have while on patrol, which often deal with their love lives, have such a ring of authenticity to them, we feel we’re eavesdropping on the most intimate details of their lives. We sense that they truly love each other, but more importantly, the actors are able to convince us that Taylor and Zavala are real people, not stereotypes. In the end, this is what makes End of Watch one of the year’s best films. It successfully conveys the emotional and psychological toll the streets take on these officers without ever resorting to genre conventions.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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