Performances make ‘Watch’ worthwhile
Updated: September 25, 2012 12:00PM
“End of Watch”
This always involving, though not always entirely convincing police drama makes good use of flashy camera techniques to tell a fairly standard-issue story — but it’s the human element that makes “End of Watch” work as well as it does.
“Watch” opens with a high-speed pursuit filmed from the perspective of an official camera mounted in a police car — the first of a long line of subjective camera shots stitching together a narrative from the point of view of cops, gangsters, surveillance cams, etc. After crashing their car, the suspects jump out with guns blazing and are shot down by officers Taylor and Zavala (Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena). It’s the beginning of an almost random series of action sequences taking place in their day-to-day routine as patrol cops in South Central Los Angeles.
“We see more capers in one deployment period than most cops do in their entire careers,” says Taylor, an ex-marine and aspiring lawyer, who’s shooting hand-held autobiographical footage of himself and his partner for a night-school filmmaking class. That’s true enough to tax credibility as he and dedicated family-man Zavala segue from one adrenaline-pumping situation to another including confiscating weapons and money from a gang courier, liberating captives of a human-trafficking ring and rescuing little children from a burning building. Their repeated interference ticks off a Mexican drug cartel to the point where it takes out a contract on their lives.
All eventfulness tends to work against the atmosphere of gritty realism writer/director David Ayer (who also wrote the screenplay for the excellent “Training Day”) is striving for with his pastiche of hand-held footage and his slice-of-life plot. Nonetheless, Gyllenhaal and the under-appreciated Pena save the day with performances so natural and nuanced that it’s easy to believe you really are listening in to casual conversation on patrol. This sort of insider’s view has been familiar since Joseph Wambaugh’s cop dramas started appearing in the ’70s, but it’s rarely been handled this well. Ayer’s plot developments ring a bit less than true from time to time — especially after the cartel’s contract becomes a factor — but Gyllenhaal and Pena always bring “End of Watch” back into balance with their entirely credible rapport.
It may be a by-product of two-dimensional characterization — Taylor and Zavala are entirely virtuous and heroic, just as the members of the Hispanic street gang are entirely vicious and loathsome — but it’s nice, for a change of pace, to see a cop movie in which police corruption is not an issue. Taylor and Zavala and all of their colleagues are basically portrayed as more or less ordinary people trying to do their best in a job that’s exceedingly complicated and dangerous. Most of the disturbingly realistic violence in “End of Watch” is inflicted on the police. And that’s where Ayer’s device of inserting raw video footage into the film is most effective — when it underscores the idea that all of this is happening to at-least-somewhat everyday people in at-least-somewhat everyday life.