Frankly, I'm beginning to tire of the "found footage" approach to filmmaking, the "Blair Witch"-inspired movies that pretend someone has shot a bunch of random scenes that magically assemble themselves into a coherent, edited final product and mysteriously wind up playing at our local theaters.
I understand why writer/director David Ayer opted for this approach in his gritty police drama "End of Watch."
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"End of Watch"★ ★ ★ ½
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Pena, Anna Kendrick, Natalie Martinez, America Ferrera
Directed by: David Ayer
Other: An Open Road Films release. Rated R for drug use, language, sexual situations and violence. 109 minutes
By having an L.A. street cop constantly shoot video of his day-to-day experiences, "End of Watch" achieves a "you are there" immediacy that feels more like a street documentary than a Hollywood feature.
But, like the earlier found-footage fantasy "Chronicle," "End of Watch" starts to get a little nutty in justifying shots that make for a smoother narrative, despite how implausible it is for the characters to actually shoot them.
Would a real L.A. cop carry a video camera on his lap to shoot his partner while he's driving the squad car?
Would a real L.A. cop attach a consumer-grade handicam to the rear bumper of his squad car to shoot lots of footage of what? His brake lights?
Fortunately, these stylistic criticisms melt away once this amazing movie kicks into gear. The cast members muscle their way through this tense and unHollywood production with such natural ease that the footage feels as if it has captured raw truth.
The cop with the camera is Brian Taylor (played by a jarheaded Jake Gyllenhaal), an ex-Marine now taking a filmmaking class and wanting to document his life on the mean streets of South Central L.A. with his partner Mike Zavala (Chicago's Michael Pena).
From the get-go, "End of Watch" eschews Hollywood conventions by focusing on the everyday elements in life, the buddy banter between two friends, the happy and sad moments they share, and perhaps most important, the sense of community that Mike and Brian enjoy with their fellow officers, a blue bond that transcends politics, race, color and religion.
We hang with these guys and get to really know them, just as if we're part of a police ride-along program that forgot to drop us back at the station.
These are not standard-issue Hollywood mavericks who play by their own rules and do their jobs all by themselves. They are smart team players who can be relied upon, and rely on others for help in a troublesome pinch.
We find out that Mike is married and about to become a parent with his wife Gabby (Natalie Martinez). Brian is single, but he hooks up with a smart, interesting woman, Janet (Anna Kendrick), who appears to be made of rare cop-dateable material.
"End of Watch" is an unsentimental, non-preachy valentine to public servants who deep in their hearts truly believe that they make an improvement in their community, not just a difference.
Even a gruff, minor character on the force named Van Hauser (David Harbour) exemplifies an understated dedication to duty when he returns after suffering a horrific, life-threatening injury.
There are no shifty police bosses taking payoffs. No double-crosses by best friends or trusted partners. No eloquent final words uttered by a hero who dies on cue after a completed sentence.
This movie feels raw and real, and it comes from the guy who wrote Denzel Washington's Oscar-winning crime drama "Training Day."
Ayer reportedly wrote the script for "End of Watch" in six days. He says in the movie press notes that "I have the 'I can write about cops' gene."
This movie confirms that. It also proves that police work isn't just for guys. America Ferrera ("Ugly Betty") and Cody Horn put in brief but forceful appearances as tough cops who can handle anything, including Mike and Brian.
So, why would Brian bother to bolt his camera to his squad car bumper? I don't know.
By the end of our watching, it doesn't matter.