September 20, 2012

‘End of Watch’: Watch and learn how to do it right | 3½ stars

“End of Watch” emerges like the best extended episode of TV’s “Cops” ever taped.

“End of Watch” emerges like the best extended episode of TV’s “Cops” ever taped.

It’s a visceral, slice-of-life look at policemen, shot primarily with handheld video, surveillance footage and dashboard cams. It doesn’t always play by those “found footage” rules, but the project conveys a you-are-there environment rarely matched in action movies.

LAPD Officer Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Officer Zavala (Michael Pena) are two resourceful beat cops who start playing detective and find themselves targeted by a Mexican drug cartel. It takes a while before the episodic plot fully unfolds, so “End of Watch” revels in the day-to-day routine of these likable men.

The bachelor Taylor is an ex-Marine prone to intellectual musings. He’s taking a film class and introduces the video recording as part of an assigned project — much to the chagrin of his fellow officers. Zavala is the devoted family man and the jokester. He’s also the more combative of the partners.

Both are tough, daring and prone to bending the rules. Their job typically consists of wrangling the criminal “food groups: dope, money, guns.” Plenty of quieter moments break up the film’s tense ones, highlighting the pair’s smart-ass camaraderie.

When they bust a perp who is keeping a gold-plated, jewel-encrusted AK-47 under his car seat, Zavala quips, “We found Liberace’s AK.”

It’s a terrific role for Pena, who has proven an exceptional supporting actor, comfortable with drama (“Crash”) or comedy (“30 Minutes or Less”). Gyllenhaal has been making movies for 20 years, but he’s enjoyed his best stretch in the last five with impressive leads in “Zodiac” and “Source Code.” The solidarity between the actors is palpable.

Director David Ayer has carved a career out of revealing the burden of being in the LAPD, having written the Oscar-winning “Training Day” as well as “S.W.A.T.” and “Dark Blue.” He has an ear for the rhythm of the law enforcement profession. The brothers-in-arms bond. The pressure. The downtime.

He’s less successful showing the flipside of the equation: the Hispanic bangers. While presented as fittingly formidable, they are so inarticulate and singularly driven by fury that they cease to become interesting or even human. They’re basically caricatures. If only Ayers’ villains had gotten fleshed out as thoroughly as his heroes.

“End of Watch” builds to an unrelenting third-act payoff. The well-staged sequence not only feels like it’s really happening, it also punctuates just how much the viewer has grown to care for these brave officers.

Hollywood has seldom delivered a buddy-cop picture with this much potency.

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