One of the more underappreciated movies by audiences in 2012 was End of Watch (2012) from writer/director David Ayer. When the Academy Awards allowed only five Best Picture nominations, it was easier to accept that a certain movie “just isn’t a ‘Best Picture’ kind of movie.” Now, with ten available slots for nominations—and frustrating film-lovers the past two years by selecting only nine—everything decent is “snubbed”, especially independent films that were teased into believing they now had access. And of all snubbed films, End of Watch is near the top of the list and now available in DVD/Blu-Ray. (You can read my analysis of the Oscar nominations and the top films of 2012.) I recommend it to you heartily as both good cinema for the film and good social insight in the story and special features.
Officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña) patrol the streets of South Central Los Angeles, specifically in the high crime area of Newton (no relation). They’re a part of a series of capers and high-tension showdowns that seem highly implausible to civilians outside these poverty-stricken urban areas. As Ayer says in the commentary, “This is kind of like a war film.” Put them in different uniforms and change the foreign language and you’ve got something not unlike The Hurt Locker (2008) or Three Kings (1999). Through a series of unfortunately connected events, Taylor and Zavala needle a particular drug cartel that then put out a bounty for these men. They also have personal lives with Taylor’s girlfriend Janet (Anna Kendrick) and Zavala’s wife Gabby (Natalie Martinez).
The plot is mostly secondary to atmosphere. Ayer’s projects have virtually all been about L.A. police officers with officers of dubious ethical fortitude. In End of Watch, they are distinctly good and true. This movie has nothing to do with dirty cops or individuals with gruesome psychological disorders. It’s a good guys versus bad guys picture with a gritty style. Style is the key element of End of Watch with Ayer and cinematographer Roman Vasyanov using, according to Ayer’s comments, five or six different cameras of differing quality. Much of the time, Gyllenhaal and Peña are the ones doing the actual camera work. At times, it reaches the roller coaster level on the queasiness meter but is definitely watchable. The Blu-Ray is very pleasant for the three or four wide aerial shots of L.A., but since most of the film—or should I say movie–is shot in video, it’s not something one would consider a necessity. Visually, the film is like Training Day (2001) with a Michael Mann infusion (and a found-footage ethos).
It would be of some interest to take a look at a script of a movie such as this. I have trouble imagining how most urban films, especially those written by white men, have the kind of apparently realistic dialogue written out before the scene is shot. Either the actors are virtuosic or much of it is improvised. The lines are peppered with swearing and, shall we say, race-based epithets that flow so freely that I cannot imagine anyone other than the truly insane putting it to page. He’d have to be arguing internally across racial and social barriers, calling himself all sorts of dirty names in varied languages. And yet, Ayer mentions only a few of the scenes were actually, fully improvised and therefore we are left to draw the conclusion that his script cannot be left in the room with small children. In a word, the script is excellent. The dialogue is insightful without falling into the wanna-be Mamet, and thus insufferable, occupational films tend to fall prey to. It’s spare and plain. But the plot is top notch insofar as it accomplishes its goal superbly. Ayer wants to show what it’s like to be a policeman in L.A. and I do not doubt for a moment that he has done so. Some films are instantly recognizable as true– Boyz n the Hood (1991) is one example, the television show The Wire (2002-08) is another—even to those outside that world and End of Watch is one of these.
Much of that is thanks to some terrific performances. Many Hollywood heart throbs are not particularly good at acting but exceptional at carving out a persona or personality that can be plugged into whatever genre that suits it. Gyllenhaal is a strange sort because his wheelhouse is dense drama without ever going into light fare (which, obviously, plays into the kind of attraction he projects). He’s remarkably good in End of Watch because Taylor is basically quirk-free and so Gyllenhaal’s usual depth brings something special to the potentially clichéd role. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Peña as good as he is in End of Watch because I’m not sure Peña has ever been given a role as earthy and full as Zavala.
And they are terrific together. The main attraction of this film is the chemistry and easiness between the characters. The film constantly flips between buddy-based antics and hard-nosed, gruesome events (it is, itself, a much-called upon theme). This alone will carry you through the bulk of the film before the plot crystalizes.
A funny element to this movie, like so many others with its ethos, is when characters that are so obviously “the real deal” (i.e. people who actually are policemen or gang bangers) stick out like a sore thumb and hurt the scene. It’s too bad, but it happens.
The music from David Sardy, as well as original music selections, should get special mention. They are uniformly terrific and exceptionally well-placed. With so many movies seemingly giving up on something that is absolutely vital to a film’s success, it is nice to see an A+ example.
There’s something about the packaging of this movie that is unattractive. I saw it in theaters because I’ve come to adopt this sense that I should see every movie ever made. But the name of it, the poster (roughly the same as the cover above), and the found-footage element all seemed like something I had to be in the mood to watch—that mood being somewhere near desperation to watch something both senseless and deep. I feel almost exactly the same way about Rampart (2011). And yet End of Watch is an excellent film that is both enjoyable and interesting. I think it might be that my preconceptions of Gyllenhaal and Peña are diametrically opposed and yet still, neither seemed suited to something you’d expect Mark Wahlberg and Benicio Del Toro to star in. It’s hard to say. Whatever it is for you, overcome it and check it out because I know you didn’t see it yet and you should. It’s really good work.
The commentary from writer/director David Ayer I’ve discussed. It’s mostly excellent. There’s a tendency, as in most every commentary, to rehash what’s happening in the scene despite the fact that you’ve almost certainly just finished watching the movie. Even though commentaries are over ten years old, they’re still working out the kinks and fighting with the idea that they’re a waste of time. (NB: there isn’t any sense Ayer thinks it’s a waste of time, I’m just speaking generally.) He goes into alternative plots, acting development, production decisions, and the like which are enjoyable to certain sorts (like me).
There are also five “featurettes” which are noticeably promotional in nature. There are interesting pieces in each one, but are highly repetitive. It would have been nice to have a single, fifteen minute featurette that fully utilized the interviews and on-set filming, but this is a $7 million movie, not a major blockbuster. They used what they had.
There are also a large number of deleted scenes all but the last couple of which are of significant interest. Many times these deleted scenes consist of tangential story arcs or clearly poor moments of writing or acting, but because of the nature of the movie not much can be considered tangential. Thus, there are a number of these scenes (which are fully produced, by the way) that fit perfectly well in the movie and must have been struck for time.
It’s available on Blu-Ray and DVD. Check it out.