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Thu September 20, 2012
Movie Reviews

Bullets And Buddies On The Streets Of South Central

Originally published on Fri September 21, 2012 6:53 pm

Street gangs, drugs and the Los Angeles Police Department have been ingredients in so many police thrillers that it's hard to imagine a filmmaker coming up with a fresh take — though that hasn't stopped writer-director David Ayer from trying. He's made four cops-'n'-cartels dramas since his Oscar-winning Training Day a decade ago; the latest, End of Watch, easily qualifies as the most resonant.

It begins with a tire-squealing, pedal-to-the-metal chase through South Central L.A., shot through the windshield of a police cruiser manned by officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña). Because Taylor's taking a film class in his time off, they travel with one extra piece of equipment in their patrol car: a camcorder — useful when the chase ends in a shootout, but still much to the annoyance of his superiors.

Still, if these cine-savvy partners don't exactly go by the book, they're good guys — good cops, dealing daily with all kinds of horrors, from missing kids to human trafficking, and somehow staying unwarped, professional and decent. This should not be a remarkable story, but in Hollywood, where cops are mostly considered interesting only when they go rogue, it kind of is.

Yes, these guys are cocky and pumped up, those badges on their chests a power trip as they strut into gang territory with guns drawn. But the badges are also a responsibility they take seriously. Taylor and Zavala are "street" in the words of one of the gang-bangers they deal with, meaning worthy of trust.

Their street cred is sufficient enough that they're even given a heads-up from a guy they've previously arrested when they cross a drug cartel that's moving into the area. Not that they listen, of course, which ratchets up the stakes in a tale that's already drum-tight with tension.

Ayer, who wrote and directed, is hardly breaking new ground here; the elements he employs are time-honored, from the Cops-style minicam footage that lets the audience ride shotgun, to the shootouts pumped up by Red Bull and coffee. Even the buddy banter that tells you these guys would lay down their lives for each other sounds familiar.

But Ayer and his cast are serving all of it up not just with the urgency the director is so good at, but with an emotional undercurrent that makes it feel remarkably authentic. End of Watch is one thriller where the adrenaline rush, considerable as it is, is almost always put in the service of character. Happily, the character on display turns out to be considerable, too.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Well, now to street gangs, drug dealing and the LAPD on the big screen. Those ingredients are so common to police thrillers it's hard to imagine a filmmaker coming up with a fresh take, but David Ayer keeps trying. He wrote the Oscar-winning movie "Training Day," and now he's written and directed another, his fifth film dealing with cops and cartels. It's called "End of Watch," and Bob Mondello has our review.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Brian Taylor and his best buddy, Mike Zavala, are beat cops who patrol the streets of South Los Angeles with one extra piece of equipment in their patrol car: a camcorder. Taylor is taking a film class and breaking department rules by documenting their days, which mostly go like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "END OF WATCH")

MICHAEL PENA: (As Mike Zavala) Dude, are you going to hook up with a Mexican girl?

JAKE GYLLENHAAL: (As Brian Taylor) You keep trying to hook me up with one.

PENA: (As Mike) You should marry one of my cousins.

GYLLENHAAL: (As Brian) If they're anything like you, I wouldn't be able to stand an hour with them.

(LAUGHTER)

GYLLENHAAL: (As Brian) Waking up in the morning, (unintelligible) like hey, can I tell you story? Here's a story about this and a story about that and a story about that.

PENA: (As Mike) It's better than, like, hey, do you know the new kind of flavored coffee I have? The barristas are excellent.

GYLLENHAAL: (As Brian) You like coffee, dude.

MONDELLO: Played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena, these are good guys, good cops dealing daily with all kinds of horrors from missing kids to human trafficking.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "END OF WATCH")

PENA: (As Mike) What are we looking for again?

GYLLENHAAL: (As Brian) Dope, money and guns.

MONDELLO: And somehow staying unwarped, professional and decent. This should not be a remarkable story, but in Hollywood, where cops are mostly considered interesting only when they go rogue, it kind of is.

Yes, these guys are cocky and pumped up, those badges on their chests a power trip but also a responsibility that they take seriously. Taylor and Zavala are street, in the words of one of the gang-bangers they deal with, meaning worthy of trust, which does not protect them when they make decisions above their pay grade.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "END OF WATCH")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) We're all good. (Unintelligible).

MONDELLO: Following up on a discovery they should have turned over to detectives, they end up on a drug cartel's hit list, which ratchets up the stakes in a tale that's already been pretty drum-tight with tension.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "END OF WATCH")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) Bro, you okay? We're shooting our way out of here, bro.

MONDELLO: Writer/director David Ayer isn't trying to break new ground in "End of Watch." The elements he employs are plenty familiar, including that TV-style mini-cam footage that lets the audience ride shotgun, shootouts pumped up by Red Bull and coffee, even the buddy banter that tells you these guys would lay down their lives for each other.

But Ayer is serving all of it up not just with the kind of urgency he's so good at but with an emotional undercurrent that makes it feel remarkably real. "End of Watch" is one thriller where the adrenaline rush, considerable as it is, serves character, which turns out to be considerable, too. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.