Tuesday, September 25, 2012

In Theaters: END OF WATCH (2012)

(US - 2012)

Written and directed by David Ayer.  Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Pena, Anna Kendrick, Natalie Martinez, America Ferrera, Cody Horn, Frank Grillo, David Harbour, Cle Sloan, Maurice Compte, Yahira "Flakiss" Garcia, Diamonique, Kristy Wu. (R, 110 mins)

Since his breakthrough scripting 2001's TRAINING DAY, David Ayer has become an auteur of Los Angeles crime cinema, demonstrating a particular gift for capturing the sights and sounds of cop and criminal life, with the lines often blurred beyond recognition.  Ayer has focused largely on corrupt cops (in addition to TRAINING DAY, there's 2004's DARK BLUE, and 2008's STREET KINGS, which he directed but didn't write), and would appear to be the cinematic heir apparent to the Demon Dog of L.A. crime fiction, James Ellroy (who collaborated with Ayer on the DARK BLUE script and co-wrote STREET KINGS).  But Ayer seems to work better as a writer than a director, and the results of END OF WATCH are mixed.  There's no questioning Ayer's knowledge of South Los Angeles and his dedication to capturing the environment in the most realistic, hard-hitting ways.  But there's also no questioning that the best cop films Ayer's been involved in--TRAINING DAY and the underrated DARK BLUE--were directed by others (and I'm not counting hired-gun scripting gigs like the original THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS and S.W.A.T.).  Ayer's first time behind the camera was with 2006's HARSH TIMES, where he managed to accomplish the unthinkable and show us that there were indeed some roles that an absurdly miscast Christian Bale can't play.  STREET KINGS had some strong elements undone by plot contrivances and a ridiculous performance by Forest Whitaker.  Similarly, END OF WATCH is hampered by inconsistencies that don't derail the film but absolutely hold it back and keep it from becoming the modern day crime classic that it has the potential to be.

The film follows two South Central officers--Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala(Michael Pena)--on their day-to-day routine.  Taylor, a law student by night, brings along some cameras on the job for a filmmaking course he's taking as an elective, and right away, Ayer makes a major misstep in not really doing anything with this idea once it's established.  It figures in the early going with a lot of shaky-cam chases and the like (Ayer has said he wanted a YouTube sense of immediacy to the film), and for a while, the film feels like any number of reality TV shows.  But then Ayer gets sloppy with the concept and essentially abandons it unless it's convenient or can provide a cool shot, but continues shooting the film in the same dizzying fashion from angles that can't possibly be from the concealed cameras that Taylor and Zavala have attached to their uniforms.  What's the point in Taylor even mentioning he's taking a filmmaking elective?  Is it to provoke the sort of badass, ballbusting posturing they engage in?  I doubt it, since they act the same whether they're filming each other or not.

Ayer spends a lot of time in the car with Taylor and Zavala, and it's here where Gyllenhaal and Pena demonstrate a very real chemistry and feel very much like old friends who know each other and have each other's back.  Taylor also starts a serious relationship with classmate Janet (Anna Kendrick), and wants to quit playing the field so he can have the same life that Zavala has with his wife Gabby (Natalie Martinez).  But again, Ayer falls asleep on the job (or just nixed stuff in the editing room), because Kendrick's Janet is so underwritten that he needn't have bothered putting her in the story at all.  It's not like her presence prompts Taylor to quit hot-dogging it on the job, where he and Zavala have earned reps as cocky badasses. 

But it's this incessant cockiness that causes the pair to run afoul of barrio crime kingpin Big Evil (Maurice Compte), who has some serious Mexican cartel connections and is far more dangerous than Taylor realizes when he decides to roll up on Big Evil's backyard party over a noise complaint.  Ayer drops the Big Evil thread for a good chunk of the running time, but it comes back into play in the undeniably powerful last 20 or so minutes, where Ayer stages an admittedly bravura shootout that Taylor and Zavala never see coming because they have no idea just how much they've pissed off some powerful people (although, for a second, Zavala seems like he might after reading a Spanish-language message scrawled in blood at a crime scene--but it's never mentioned).  The last section of END OF WATCH is so brilliantly conceived and edited that it not only has you leaving the theater thinking you just saw a better film than you really did, but it's obvious Ayer thought of the finale first and then realized he needed to build a film around it, and that the rest of what he had to build was done in a rather hasty fashion.  The whole "filmmaking elective" thing reeks of some pandering-to-the-focus-groups need to trendhop onto the handheld/found footage craze (though it isn't a "found footage" film, it's definitely a close relative, at least until Ayer gets bored with it).  I wish Ayer had spent more time on the Big Evil subplot, because his crew is filled with some of the most merciless and plausibly terrifying villains that a cop movie has ever offered. Even an old-school South Central gangsta like Tre (the great Cle Sloan), who forms an uneasy alliance with Taylor and Zavala and tries to warn them that the word on the street is that they've got serious people after them, is wary of Big Evil and his crew.  They're absolutely nihilistic, completely sociopathic, and without a shred of remorse or pity.  And as played by Compte and particularly rapper Yahira "Flakiss" Garcia (who almost steals the film as the ruthless La La), they very quietly create some unforgettable, despicable, and unsettling figures, and they never go over the top with it.  Big Evil's crew doesn't get a lot of screen time, but your stomach will be in knots every time they're onscreen.

There's a great film buried somewhere in END OF WATCH, but we only see fragments of it:  the Taylor/Zavala camaraderie, the desire to vividly capture the reality of police work in South Los Angeles, and the performances of Gyllenhaal, Pena, Compte, and Flakiss.  END OF WATCH is easily Ayer's most accomplished work yet as a filmmaker, but it's hard not to wonder if having someone else behind the camera--an Antoine Fuqua, perhaps?--would've allowed him to focus more on the writing and flesh out and fine-tune the less successful elements.  In the end, END OF WATCH is extremely flawed and problematic, but as frustrating as it is, what it gets right is done so well that it's still very much a worthwhile film.

David Ayer regular Cle Sloan has a supporting role in
END OF WATCH, which begs the question...

...how is Noel Gugliemi NOT in this?!

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