Sunday, September 23, 2012

End of Watch

“Training Day” writer David Ayer takes the director’s chair for his new script “End of Watch,” which is much better and infinitely more fun than the overpraised 2001 Denzel Washington-Ethan Hawke film. “End of Watch” teams Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña as Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala, LAPD partners who share more than a squad car. Each is the most important person in the other’s life, outside of family, and each would take a bullet for the other.

That’s good to know when they’re out patrolling the most dangerous zones of South Central. As in “Training Day,” Ayer has written several violent confrontations, and some of these early scenes are admittedly viscerally gripping. But they’re actually the least interesting elements of the film. First, there are too many of them. These guys seem to make the newspaper every time they go on duty. More scenes (or, say, one scene) of a routine act of policing that didn’t turn into a high-speed chase or end in a grisly discovery would have both shown greater trust by Ayer in his characters and his audience, and provided context (and a little downtime) that would heighten the impact of the heavy stuff.

No, what makes “End of Watch” a solid recommendation is the tremendous rapport between Gyllenhaal and Peña. I’ve had my eye on Peña for quite some time. He showed in “30 Minutes or Less” that he’s a gifted comic actor. Here, he gives us the complete package. Both guys get some great lines in the playful banter between them, but nothing quite matches Peña’s descriptions of Gyllenhaal’s “white people” activities, especially a riff on whites’ love for coffee. There’s more to Mike Zavala than jokes, though: Peña fills him in, a loving husband and father, a realist who can be crude and ribald with his partner but gentlemanly and slightly shy of his wife.

As for Gyllenhaal, this is easily his best work since “Brokeback Mountain.” He spent six months with LAPD to prepare for the part, and he’s got the look: shaved head, straight-ahead stare, wiseass delivery. This is the first time in a while that I’ve felt the audience connect with him. And he too shows an appealing comic side, as when Brian asks Mike what’s on tap for the weekend and adopts his partner’s voice to answer: “Well, I have my sister’s quinceañera, my niece’s quinceañera, my cousin’s quinceañera…”

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