Ghetto Gunfighters

20 Sep

Good movies have the power to transport us, whether they’re taking us to a completely made-up world or showing us somewhere we typically don’t go.

The new movie End of Watch does the latter: It takes us on a cinematic ride-along with two cops as they patrol South Central Los Angeles.

The film’s gimmick is that Officer Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) is documenting what it’s like to be a cop. So he carries around a camcorder and has small cams that he attaches to his and his partner’s uniforms, plus the other cameras placed within the squad car and elsewhere.

Yes, that has a tendency to create a very shaky picture at times, such as in the opening car chase, which is exciting, but also a bit disorienting. When it works, though — which is more often than not — the vérité style makes the film’s dialogue sound unscripted, the action feel more real, and the chemistry between Taylor and Officer Mike Zavala (Michael Peña) more natural.

And that’s partly what distinguishes End of Watch from other buddy-cop movies.

Of course, not everyone in the movie is a fan of Taylor and Zavala: The more senior Van Hauser (played by David Harbour, a high-school chum of mine) doesn’t like the cameras, or the fact that Taylor and Zavala tend to do things their own way.

More worrisome is the Mexican drug cartel that targets Taylor and Zavala for death after the cops discover a small cache of firearms and money one day on a routine patrol of the neighborhood.

Uh oh.

End of Watch comes to us from David Ayer, the writer of Training Day, the film that won Denzel Washington an Oscar. Like that movie, this one is a gritty, uncompromising urban cop drama. But at the center is the relationship between the two lead characters, guys who do indeed appear to have a tight partnership. The actors’ unforced performances allow that bond to come across more authentically. (That said, I did have a hard time buying that either of these nice-guy cops would intimidate any badass resident of the neighborhood.)

The film also shows what it’s like when these cops are off-duty — Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air) plays Taylor’s girlfriend — but it succeeds when it sticks to the guys and their daily patrols. A scene where they bust the chops of a perp and Zavala fights him just to prove he’s tougher illustrates what cops like these are up against on a daily basis, and what they have to do to maintain law and order.

That End of Watch gets more uncomfortable to watch as it goes along is not meant as a knock at its quality. Rather, the more the film shows of the cartel and their unforgiving brand of “justice,” the more I was happy to know I wasn’t actually part of this world, and could go home to a safe place when the lights came up.

Taylor and Zavala can’t say the same. That’s the life they chose, and End of Watch effectively portrays how they do their jobs honorably, fearlessly, and with a lot of heart. Sure, at certain points, you wish they’d put down the cameras and protect themselves (hello, Cloverfield), but if they did, this movie would be a lot less interesting.

I’m giving End of Watch a B+.

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