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Action Alphabet: 'End of Watch'

Whenever I write about a movie, one thing I always like to do is to read over reviews from other critics to gain a frame of reference of its general perception while I form my own concrete opinions about it. While shuffling through various articles on David Ayer’s police thriller End of Watch, which was given a great many accolades, I found that everyone who rated it as poor did so for the same reason – they just don’t like found footage movies. Aside from the fact that it isn’t really a found footage movie (I’d classify as more of a documentarian style film, though most people might find minute differences irrelevant), I find it very confusing to come across those who would wipe their hands of such a movie because their fast assumptions blind them from the reasoning behind the artistic choices and the echoing power they create. Yes, found footage movies are prone to being grossly annoying (the style, though innovative, is readily abused by Hollywood), but writer/director David Ayer is smart not to get to literal with his loose interpretation of the approach, using it as a visual guideline rather than a hard and fast rule. He doesn’t possess the eye for visualizing grace amongst horror like, for instance, Alfonso Cuarón does with the gorgeous long takes in the dark gem Children of Men or the recently honored Gravity; so he approach capturing the breadth of great moments from a different angle, with uncut handheld and security camera footage. And the payoff amounts to a rough yet sympathetic vibe that serves as the driving force behind the entire film.

Photos from 'End of Watch'
Photos from 'End of Watch'
Jack Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena in 'End of Watch'

Impeccably talented actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña play partner cops Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala respectively, an so the audience gets to watch them go through their daily lives as police officers in the sprawling ganglands of L.A. The narrative is more free form, with no solid plot trajectory other than an episodic series of events that leads to a brutal and inevitable third act finale. Through alternating scenes of buddy-cop banter and pulse-pounding vignettes of their police duties, Ayer strikes great balance between his actions sequences and his talking-heads dialogues akin to fellow writer/director Quentin Tarantino, but without the tongue-in-cheek effervescence of self-aggrandizing pop-culture references – watching these two guys have endearingly candid conversations is just as interesting to watch as their arresting scowling Mexican drug cartel lackeys. These characters are so easy to believe in (despite their actions as beat cops sometimes riding the edge of believability): they are ridiculous and rambunctious on their own time, happily playing stupid pranks on their co-workers and enjoying spending quality time with their ladies, as well as they are scared and serious when they find themselves toe to toe with hardened criminals. Anyone who finds themselves invested in these two should have an easy enough time understanding the choices of cinematography – if I were Ayer, I would have just let the camera run on these guys too.

Movies like End of Watch are a bit harder to classify along with other action movies, if not for its beautifully tempered story and for the gravity of the realities it portrays. The moments of action are hugely exciting and intense, but it changes things when you start to grasp that many if not all of the things you see happening on screen are not so far from the truth. Sure, there are lighter and funnier moments – there’s a hilarious scene where Peña’s Officer Zavala has a rowdy agree-to-disagree fistfight with a mouthy goon who they’re supposed to arrest for harassing a mailman – but Ayer won’t allow his audience to leave brutality and violence to the imagination. Plainly put, some really scary stuff happens in this movie, often startling enough for even those with the strongest of stomachs to briefly overt their eyes. Even so, no one should think of his or herself as perverse for enjoying this movie for how action-packed it is, though hopefully that isn’t all it is enjoyed for: End of Watch is exciting as hell. This movie is the real real-deal. Hollywood is so standoffish when it comes to how real they think they can make their movies. But the real world is just and light-hearted and silly as it is horrible and menacing, and End of Watch proves that such a worldview can make great cinema. This movie is the kind of ideal that those in pursuit of realism should aim for.