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End of Watch

“End of Watch” is kind of like an extended episode of of the TV show “Cops,” albeit the absolute best episode ever committed to tape.  That’s the advantage of fiction, I guess; you get to take your characters into a greater number of dramatic and exciting situations than happen in reality. Your cops can have an adventure every day, saving children from burning buildings, chasing gangsters through the ghetto both on foot and in fast cars, and fist-fighting big nasty drug dealers.  It’s all part of the job, especially if the job is writing scripts for movies.  Plus, you get to decide who lives and who dies at the end. It’s almost like being a superhero.

This movie has a plot, stricly speaking, but it’s only half-heartedly devoted to  it.  That’s a good thing, because it’s a pretty lousy plot.  Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena star as LAPD partners who are very dedicated to their job.  The first half of the film is littered wtih scenes of heroic, even idiotic, bravery, which culminates with the two of them being awarded Medals of Valour for saving three children from a burning house. But then our heroes randomly stumble upon a drug cartel, and when the FBI shows up and warns them to stay away from these bad guys, they’re out of their league, and, surprisingly, they do so. There are plenty of kittens to save out of trees and old grandmothers to check in on. But then they randomly stumble upon another hideout for the same cartel, and now there’s a price on their heads, which they ignore (“We’re cops…everyone wants to kill us”) until a fatal run-in with the cartoonish bad guys sent to kill them.

Yeah, it’s that bad.  Except it isn’t, because nobody seems to care all that much about the plot.  There’s really no pacing at all in “End of Watch;” no sense of conflict and building tension leading to climax and resolution. The thing just ambles along, abruptly alternating action and intensity with comedy and character moments.  But instead of feeling like a trainwreck, it feels true to life; a cop’s life is hours of inane conversation with your partner punctuated suddenly and unexpectedly by moments of adrenaline.  Real life is rarely paced the way we’d like it to be.

And it helps that “End of Watch” manages both action and dialogue scenes well.  The action is well-executed, thanks to the director’s solid sense of setting as well as his knowledge of when to keep us in the dark and when to turn on the lights.  But the best parts of the movie are in between the action; scenes of Gyllenhaal and Pena in the patrol car, trying to stay awake; conversations in which razzing each other turns quickly into serious moments and then back into razzing with a rhythm and a warmth that feels real and is very engaging.

The film starts out as yet another “found footage” type of thing.  Gyllenhaal carries a camera around for a class he’s taking in night school, and people most of them angry cops, keep telling him to turn it off.  (He’s supposedly pre-law, but after that one line about “taking classes” in the first ten minutes, it’s never mentioned again.) But pretty quickly the film drifts away from that pretense.   Director David Ayers can’t find excuses for more and more of the shots he wants to include, and eventually seems to just give up trying.  (The worst moment comes when a group of angry, foul-mouthed gangsters steal a van for a drive-by shooting — and are accompanied by a gangster with a video camera.  Seriously?) But it’s just as well; the “found footage” gimmick has been done to death, and Ayers is a better director when he just owns up to the fact that he wants to use lots of hand-held cameras and shaky, disorienting shots to tell his story, without pretending like they’re part of the story.

“End of Watch” curiously straddles the line between buddy-cop comedies like “The Other Guys” or  “Rush Hour” and intense, overly serious cop films like “Training Day”  or “Righteous Kill.”   There are lots of funny moments, and it also has its share of harrowing, even sickening moments.  But the characters refuse to take anything seriously unless it really is, well, serious.  I guess after you’ve seen children tied up and stuffed in the closet by their crackhead parents,  it’s hard to get worked up when your supervisor yells at you about paperwork that didn’t get filed correctly.  It’s actually kind of refreshing to see good, competent and dedicated cops who aren’t all serious and grim on their mission to save the world from forces of evil.

So what we have, ultimately, is a curiously watchable film that is probably better on the screen than it was on the page.  If this was really supposed to be more traditional cop film, ie, a “found footage” action-thriller about two cops who cross the cartel in South LA, it could easily have been one of the worst movies of the year.  It’s impossible to say who or what saved “End of Watch” from itself . David Ayers both wrote the script and directed, and so is bound to say that everything on the screen is exactly how he intended it to be when he the idea first came to him in a vision.  But given that there are so many abandoned ideas still present on the screen, and that the chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Ayers is really the heart and soul of the movie, one has to wonder if perhaps this is the rare case of actors saving a film from its director.  Of course, the director has to be pliable enough to allow that to happen,  so let’s be thankful that he did.  “End of Watch” ends up being solidly entertaining, and odd in some good and even memorable ways.  It’s worth watching.


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