End of Watch (****)

Every once in a while, a film sneaks up on you and absolutely knocks your socks off. It’s hardly a rare occurrence these days, especially for me, but it’s happened again with ‘End of Watch’, a cop movie that I believe will go down as filmmaker David Ayer’s masterpiece. Now, I should mention that I have a very personal connection to this film. You see, I spent a very brief period as a New York City Police Officer. It turned out not to be a job that I wanted to keep and I resigned from the department, but I actually took the oath and was in the Academy. That gives me a bit of an inside baseball look at a movie of this ilk, and wow did Ayer get it right. Flawlessly made, tremendously acted by his cast, including stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena, intense and funny in all the right ways, and emotionally gut wrenching, ‘End of Watch’ is perhaps the best film that I’ve seen in 2012 so far, and a uniquely made one at that. A character study as much as an action flick, there’s not one piece of this movie that I didn’t love. All of the choices pay off and I was literally brought to tears.

For LAPD Officers Brian Taylor (Gyllenhaal and Mike Zavala (Pena), every single day they go to work willingly putting themselves in danger. They patrol one of the most dangerous areas of South Central Los Angeles and Taylor is actually filming their patrols for a school project that he’s making while going to night school to study Law. It’s a rough job, but what makes it bearable for Taylor and Zavala in a way that it isn’t for most of their brothers and sisters on the job is that they’re not just partners, but best friends. Every Officer would risk their lives for each other, but it means something even more for these two. They’d look after each other’s families if anything happened to the other. Taylor is in his first long-term commitment, dating Janet (Anna Kendrick) and headed towards marriage, while Zavala has been married to Gabby (Natalie Martinez) for years and will be a father soon. They’re young hot shots on the job and budding rock stars, but when they accidentally stumble onto the dealings of not just small time gangbangers but a big Mexican drug cartel, they find out that they might be in over their heads. As they keep coming across more ominous signs of the cartel’s work, a hit is actually put out on them. They have a whole department to supposedly protect them, but when it comes down to it it’ll just be Taylor and Zavala having to make sure that the other is safe. The movie does have some satisfying action scenes, but it’s all heart and really a character study and a tribute to good cops in the end.

Jake Gyllenhaal is doing some of his very best work here as a smart cop looking to use police work as a start to a life in the law. He’s overconfident at times, but he’s also an intellectual that values intelligence above all else. Gyllenhaal turns in a top 5 performance for his career by essaying the character to never seem like either just an action hero or just someone who doesn’t fit as a patrolman. Michael Pena matches him too, playing the part of someone who joined the LAPD to get a better life for himself and now is dedicated to it in a way he never expected. Pena is an underrated actor and he continues to show why he needs more recognition here. The chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Pena is incredibly and deeply realistic, an essential element of this movie’s success. The two feel like partners, giving the scenes of them just driving around an air of authenticity that elevates the flick. In supporting roles, we have Anna Kendrick and Natalie Martinez doing solid work in small parts as the two’s significant others, with Kendrick especially getting a scene to shine. As fellow Officers, we have the group of America Ferrara, and Cody Horn playing tough female partners, David Harbour playing an older disillusioned member of the force, and Frank Grillo playing their Sergeant. Also in the cast we have Richard Cabral, Jaime FitzSimons, Kevin Vance, and many more, but it’s Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena who blew me away.

Aside from his screenplays for ‘Training Day’ and ‘U-571’, I’d yet to really like any of David Ayer’s works to date, but that’s changed in a big way here. His writing has never been sharper and in his third outing as a director, following the forgettable ‘Harsh Times’ and even more forgettable ‘Street Kings’, he’s put it all together. Not only has he made a well acted, perfectly paced, and emotionally truthful work, he’s managed to shoot it in a way that no cop film has ever done. All of the shots are hand-held, but more than half of the movie is done in POV shots, making almost for a found footage sort of film. It’s ingenious and really makes you feel like you are there, elevating the movie’s power and intensity at all turns. As for his script, it’s rooted in the truth of the job, while never really falling back on clichés. Even the inevitable shoot-out that must occur in the third act is played in a different way than you’d expect. For me, David Ayer has turned in the most surprisingly great filmmaking of the year. I never thought he had it in him.

‘End of Watch’ is absolutely brilliant and for my money, no movie this year has matched it. Now, I may reconsider, but at this moment it’s my #1 of the year. I wish with all my heart that Oscar would recognize this flick, but I realize what a long shot that is, so I just want to urge all of you to go see it and find out for yourself what an achievement David Ayer has made here. I didn’t know what to expect going in and was absolutely floored, so take that for what it’s worth. I really can’t recommend ‘End of Watch’ enough to you!

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!