published Friday, September 21st, 2012

‘Watch’ breathes life into familiar genre

You’ve seen the buddy-cop movie a million times before, especially the mismatched buddy-cop movie.

You’ve also seen the found-footage movie a million times before, beginning with the precedent-setting “Blair Witch Project” in 1999.

This brings us to “End of Watch,” which combines these two approaches: It’s a racially mismatched buddy-cop movie in which the cops record their daily activities while on patrol.

The found-footage aesthetic creates the illusion that what we’re watching is unscripted, and so we feel like we don’t know what’s going to happen from one moment to the next. And co-stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña have such tremendous chemistry with each other, they make you want to ride along. As they goof on each other in often hilarious fashion, their banter reveals not just an obvious and believable brotherly bond but also the kind of gallows humor necessary to make the horrors of their profession tolerable.

This is also familiar territory for David Ayer, who has extensively explored the complexities of the LAPD and the crime-infested parts of town its officers cover in films he’s written and co-written (“Training Day,” “Dark Blue,” “SWAT”) or directed (“Harsh Times,” “Street Kings”). Here, he suggests he’s developed a deep appreciation for what these men and women do. “End of Watch” isn’t a propaganda film by any means — its officers still make some questionable decisions and go looking for trouble where they shouldn’t — but the greater good of the department and an unflagging sense of fraternal loyalty are paramount.

Gyllenhaal’s Brian Taylor and Pena’s Mike Zavala obviously care greatly for each other and will always have one another’s back, long before weddings and babies give these patrol partners formal opportunities to say so.

Brian is taking a filmmaking class on the side, so not only does he carry a camcorder all day, he also places tiny, imperceptible cameras on his and Mike’s uniform shirts. Add to that the many cameras already attached to various parts of their squad car and it’s a multimedia wonderland. Sometimes this aesthetic can be exciting, as in the tricky high-speed chase that opens the film from the perspective of the dashboard; other times it’s intentionally dizzying and even headache-inducing. At other times, Ayer abandons this conceit entirely for an aerial shot of the downtown skyline or a love scene. The inconsistency is distracting; either go with it, or don’t.

“End of Watch” follows Brian and Mike through a series of seemingly disconnected calls, each of which results in a success for this intrepid young team. They begin receiving acclaim within their division, even from the cold, no-nonsense female team (Cody Horn and a very different America Ferrera, both very good) and the bitter, jaded veteran (David Harbour, who gets one great, angry and profane monologue). But they also attract the attention of a power-hungry, stereotypical Mexican street gang, which may have ties to even more powerful forces south of the border.

Still, they remain undaunted and actually scoff at the threat with some bravado, to the dismay of Mike’s pregnant wife (Natalie Martinez) and Brian’s increasingly serious girlfriend (Anna Kendrick, who nails her most mature role yet). From the brutal daily violence to the dramatic final act, “End of Watch” itself remains thrilling and uncompromising.

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