Ten Words or Less Review: Colors 2: South Central Still Sucks
Before I watched this movie I should have gone back and seen Colors, the Sean Penn/Robert Duvall LAPD cop drama from the late 80’s. I’d like to see how the aesthetic and attitudes match up. To see what 25 years have done to the Hollywood perception of the worst parts of L.A. and the cops who patrol it. My guess is that what producers saw as a dangerous, hopeless Hell hole then is seen as the same dangerous, hopeless Hell hole now. Except there are more Latinos. End of Watch is about two cops who spend their days patrolling this cracked corner of the world, where the most debased level of human atrocity is now the norm.
Jake Gyllenhal and Michael Pena play Brian and Zavala, two cops who patrol their assigned district with a kind of jovial determination to the job. They show respect for people as much as they can but they know where the line is and expect both cop and criminal to adhere to it to some degree. To say they see and experience the hard side of life is the understatement of all understatements. Dealing with a crackhead Mom whose duct taped her kids up in the closet and forgotten about it is the least of the offenses they inevitably witness. These two see the grizzly underbelly of the world day in and day out, but still remain composed and humorous in the face of the unimaginable. One keeps expecting their psyches to warp and fracture but the narrative doesn’t delve into trite histrionics about cops breaking down in the face of humanity’s worst. If you join the LAPD in this day and age you should known pretty well what you’re heading into and Watch knows that. Watch is more dedicated to the tropes and procedure of the contemporary cop life, albeit amplified to some degree.
One could make a sound argument that the direction and screenplay by David Ayer places Brian and Zavala in one too many hair raising situations. The burning building sequence starts to push credibility and then the duo become the target of a drug cartel. One has to accept a certain amount of dramatic flexibility and though Watch pushes, it doesn’t snap. David Ayer has been mining trolling through the LAPD for stories for a decade now, writing and directing less noted efforts like Harsh Times and Street Kings. I haven’t seen either. His screenplay to Training Day was top tier until its brain damaged finale act took hold and wrecked the effort. End of Watch is perhaps the first time he’s succeeded in digging into the LAPD with a minimal amount of compromise. His decision to adopt the handheld, found footage aesthetic doesn’t stress the viewer out. You could even say there’s a symmetry to the style. Couldn’t Cops claim to be the birth place of the hand held movie? Ayers cheats this system when he needs to which works for the best. Strict adherence to character POV isn’t always the best way to go. In the end there’s the slovenly nature that the genre replicates, but it’s organized and composed enough to feel professional and well edited.
Watch rest on the shoulders of Gyllenhal and Pena and they accomplish something so few movies do, a believable spirit of friendship and brotherhood. They go back and forth like two assholes who have known each other for too long, always knowing what the other is thinking. So many stories pinned on the hope of chemistry between actors can be railroaded because the actors in question feel like they met 5 minutes before the camera started. For Gyllenhal this is probably one of the few ‘normal’ parts he’s ever managed. Though he did it exceedingly well he was getting too often cast as the perpetually distant or emotionally isolated weirdo. This and Source Code show an actor trying to be just a touch less mannered and esoteric Watch shows us that he can be a convincing charmer and all around everyday shithead, not just the strange kid talking to a tall invisible rabbit. Pena, mostly an unknown to me, matches up against him beat for beat. I don’t believe Pena has ever grabbed my attention in his long career but he’s great here. While the fate of these two friends seems preordained, it still resonates in the unfolding because of the bond Gyllenhal and Pena have created.
While diligently built on the back of predictable but perhaps unavoidable cop movie cliches, End of Watch strives to rise above the text book nature of its plot and become something more than ‘another cop movie’. It’s a top notch piece of drama that brings the viewer into the world of the LAPD with a convincing aesthetic. Plenty of movies and cop shows have delved into this territory over the decades and as long as South Central remains a pit they’ll keep doing so, but End of Watch can claim to be being one of the best examples of the LAPD cop drama.