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It’s cops vs. drug dealers in the newest film directed by Training Dayscreenwriter David Ayer. End of Watch stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña as police officers in South Central Los Angeles, examining not only the violent and often deadly battles they face while on duty, but also office politics as well as the balance of family life in a highly dangerous profession. The film also includes one of the most intense finales in recent cop movie memory.

End of Watch is set up with what has become a fairly common movie convention as of the past decade or so, utilizing found footage to piece together the story of the film. The main footage comes from Gyllenhaal’s character—Officer Brian Taylor—who is enrolled in school and is taking an introductory filmmaking class. For a school assignment, he is capturing footage with a mini-DV camera, as well as a couple cameras attached to his uniform and the uniform of his partner, Officer Mike Zavala (Peña). The remainder of the footage comes from security camera footage (including the cameras mounted on the police cruisers), a camera that one of the main drug dealers is always messing around with, and is mixed with other random footage used to fill in the gaps. This actually becomes distracting, on occasion, as you begin questioning, “Wait a second. Who’s holding that camera?”

By far the most engrossing aspect of the film is the performances of Gyllenhaal and Peña as partners and best friends. Gyllenhaal particularly steps out of his comfort zone to give one of the best performances of the year so far (and his best performance since 2005’s Brokeback Mountain). He really feels like a cop. He doesn’t feel like an A-list actor pretending to be a cop. Both actors put in quite a bit of work preparing for their roles, driving around all day with real police officers, patrolling the worst parts of South Central Los Angeles. And it shows. When they rattle off police terms, the words flow from their mouths as if they were born in a uniform. This, combined with the found footage style of the film, combine to make it all seem about as realistic as most documentaries you will see on the subject matter.

As I mentioned before, the movie balances police shootouts and office antics with the personal lives of the two main characters. Natalie Martinez plays Peña’s wife Gabby, while Anna Kendrick (who has found her way into just about every big movie since the original Twilight) plays Gyllenhaal’s girlfriend Janet. The two women do a fine job at giving a little depth to characters that do not see an extraordinary amount of screen time. The cast is rounded out terrifically with performers who are somewhat recognizable—“Oh, I think he played a cop onThe Shield.” This lack of recognizable faces (aside from the leads, of course) adds even more to the film’s gritty realism.

This is a high-energy, emotional, and at times frightening film. There are car chases and drive-by shootings, and the film is surrounded by the constant threat of violence. I touched upon the ending of the film earlier, and without giving anything away, it really leaves an impression. It is scary, intense, and satisfying, as the movie concludes with the inevitable meeting of good vs. Big Evil (the name of the main gang member in the film). Speaking of which, the villains in the film are excellent, and their casting is perfect. The constant fear of violence that lays a thick layer over the film’s surface can be attributed to the performances of Maurice Compte as Big Evil (he has appeared in Breaking Badamong others) and his band of drug dealing gang members.

The bottom line is that you should see this film. From the acting to the realistic shooting style, you will feel like you just spent two hours watching actual LAPD police officers confronting the city’s most dangerous criminals. Gyllenhaal’s impressively multi-layered performance alone is reason enough to go check it out. Is the film perfect? No. The found footage aspect of the movie is used when it is convenient, and is unevenly combined with the handheld shaky cam that you will see in so many other action films these days. However, the few minor blemishes in an otherwise remarkable film seem rather insignificant when weighed against everything else. So, if you are in the mood for a hard, violent, and emotional cop story that takes place on the meanest streets in the west, then End of Watch is for you.


Movie Review by Mike Danner