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End of Watch (Blu-Ray/DVD Combo Pack) Review

January 22, 2013 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
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End of Watch (Blu-Ray/DVD Combo Pack) Review  

Directed by: David Ayer
Written by: David Ayer

Jake Gyllenhaal – Brian Taylor
Michael Peña – Mike Zavala
Natalie Martinez – Gabby
Anna Kendrick – Janet
David Harbour – Van Hauser
Frank Grillo – Sarge
America Ferrera – Orozco
Yahira Garcia – La La
Maurice Compte – Big Evil

Domestic Gross: $41,003,371
Worldwide Gross: $43,353,921

DVD Release Date: January 22, 2013
Running Time: 109 minutes

Rated R for strong violence, some disturbing images, pervasive language including sexual references, and some drug use

There are times when police dramas seem to be a dime a dozen within Hollywood fare. Tales of dirty cops, drug deals gone bad, heroes putting their lives on the line and so on are standard fare for movies, and for good reason. The “boys in blue” hold a unique fascination for people in their sanctioned duty to protect and serve, as well as the power and authority that gives them over us. David Ayer sought to provide a different look at those men with End of Watch, which hit theaters in September to solid reviews and moderate box office success. Now Universal has released the Jake Gyllenhall/Michael Pena-starring film on home video in the hopes of ensnaring a greater audience within the narrative of the film.

The Movie

The film stars Gyllenhaal and Pena as officers Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala, two members of the Los Angeles Police Department who patrol a part of the city that is torn apart by gang violence and all that comes with it. After an opening scene that captures Taylor and Zavala in a high-speed chase through claustrophobically narrow alleyways that ends in a shootout, the film transitions to Taylor’s handheld camera; as it turns out, he is taking a film class as an elective while he works to complete his degree in criminal law. Not everyone is a fan of this film project; the dour Officer Van Hauser (Harbour) threatens to file a complaint against him for example, while others such as Orozco (Ferrera) make jokes about it. Undaunted, he carries on and the cameras, along with some stealth cams clipped to both Taylor and Zavala, capture all the drama that the duo encounter as they find themselves descending into an investigation of a drug cartel, which may prove to be very unhealthy for them.

David Ayer wrote and directed End of Watch, a film that is right within his wheelhouse. Ayer’s previous feature directorial efforts are Harsh Times and Street Kings; he is also the man behind the scripts for Training Day and Dark Blue. His experience with this sort of thematic subject material is such that you might wonder if he really has anything new left to say about the topic; the answer, thankfully, is yes. With End of Watch, Ayer doesn’t feel the need to make a traditional police crime thriller or drama. There are no dirty cops here and even the archetypes you come to expect from such films are given extra weight via backstories and character development. Instead of a tale of a black-and-white conflict between good cops and bad cops, Ayer goes for a fuller, messier and more interesting approach as he looks at police as good people trying to do their difficult and often dangerous job. Within that depiction we get to see the complex and incredibly close brotherhood that develops through these characters and ties them together, allowing them to persevere through hard times and make decisions that put them at risk because they feel it’s the right thing to do.

At its core, Ayer’s script humanizes these characters and does a good job of it. Through Brian’s lens we see not only his tight-knit friendship with Mike and his varying dynamics with the others within the department, but his and Mike’s personal lives as well. We meet Janet (Kendrick), Brian’s new girlfriend who is getting a crash course in what it means to become the lover of a cop, as well as Gabby (Martinez), Mike’s wife of several years. The two officers spend a lot of time talking to each other on patrol about their everyday lives and we learn that Brian has aspirations of becoming a detective. We even spend time with La La (Garcia) and her crew, who work for the gang leader known as Big Evil (Compte). The time spent with them puts a face to the people who will become the primary adversaries as the officers get deeper in their investigations. Ayer looks at the story from all aspects and presents us with a 360 degree view of our protagonist’s lives, as well as the forces that push and pull at the periphery.

To complement that all-encompassing view, Ayer takes a similar approach to the film’s visual style. End of Watch has been described as a “found footage” film and a mockumentary, but those descriptions aren’t quite accurate. Rather than constrain himself to the limits of one format, Ayer instead takes a 360 degree look by use of not only Brian’s camcorder and stealth cams, but third-person handheld cameras as well. This gives a more expansive view, allowing Ayer and cinematographer Roman Vasyanov the freedom to capture the story from any aspect. Dashboard cameras, security camera footage and more are employed; any camera that might be in play is fair game for Ayer, and if there is no convenient camera for a shot he just uses the third-person perspective. That refusal to adhere to any one format presents a more interesting visual style without damaging the immediacy or gritty look that the filmmaker and his director of photography are going for. There are moments where the whole thing doesn’t quite work as well as we might hope and a few shots take us out of the film for a brief moment, but it enhances the movie far more than it hurts.

Aside from the visual style, the film’s best component is the acting. Gyllenhaal and Pena have a fantastic chemistry; the two worked with Ayers for almost five months learning the ropes of being cops and the dedication shows not only in their authenticity but in how comfortable they seem with each other. You truly believe that these two are longtime partners, and they even make some potentially-tedious scenes engaging through their natural deliveries. Kendrick and Martinez are also fine; Kendrick gets more screen time but they both do a fair amount with the time they’re given. Frank Grillo and David Harbour play to type as the grizzled and humorless cops, respectively and the rest of the cast is solid.

If the film does have a flaw, it is in the overall plot framework of the investigation that brings the duo into harm’s way. Certain well-known tropes of the genre come into play; while they are acceptable for the most part they do steer the film on a brief excursion through more conventional waters than Ayer and company seem to want to travel. The final act moves a bit quicker than it should and ends in a sudden, jarring fashion. That appears to be Ayer’s design and not an accident, which is all well and good but it does make it a somewhat less satisfying experience. In the end though, these are relatively minor flaws and only leave dings in what is one of the more intriguing cop dramas of recent years.

Film Rating: 8.5

The Video

The 1080p presentation of End of Watch looks far better than you would expect it to. This isn’t to say that I have a low opinion of the film’s visual style, but the fact that Ayer uses a multitude of different camera types means that he had a lot of different video sources to stitch together for this film, from personal “stealth” cameras to Gyllenhaal’s camcorder to a more traditional handheld format. That Universal made the resulting transfer look as good as it does is sensational work on their part. The unique visual style that Ayer and Vasyanov put together is faithfully represented on the small-screen and while by definition that means there are visual flaws, these are stylistic choices and not any fault of the transfer process. Even with the different camera formats you have a relatively clear image with lifelike colors and rich, defined blacks. This is the kind of visual presentation that works not in spite of its flaws, but because of them because it adds that authenticity without needing to go to an over-the-top, vertigo-inducing stage. Anyone who complains about the aliasing, noise or digital artifacts in this film are frankly missing the point.

Video Rating: 8.5

The Audio

The audio track for End of Watch is not as held back by the film’s format and that gives it a bit of edge over the visual presentation. Universal gave the film a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that allows the dialogue to cut through all the background noise, making it clear and easy to hear at all times. Even during scenes with a lot of potentially-distracting audio–of which there are several–the dialogue is always perfectly discernible. Low-frequency effects come through strong and the channels are impressively used to provide a true surround-sound experience. This is essential in bringing you right into the action and adds impact to the story; it’s a perfect example of how a great audio transfer can truly enhance a film. Subtitles are presented in English SDH, French and Spanish.

Audio Rating: 9.0

The Packaging

End of Watch is presented in a standard Blu-Ray keep case with a cardboard sleeve depicting the poster as cover art. The image is clear and aesthetically-pleasing, showing Gyllenhaal and Pena with the gold-played AK-47 from the film in the overexposed style you might see in the camera-work from the film; it works well in presenting an image that would entice people to check it out. The disc itself is a simple and generic silver with blue lettering. The menu options on the disc are very easy to navigate and clear to follow, making it a good if unspectacular packaging job.

Packaging Rating: 7.0

Special Features

Fate with a Badge: (2:11) This is the first of several short featurettes that present on different aspects of the film. This has Gyllenhaal, Pena, Ayer, Ferrera and technical advisor Jaime Fitzsimons (who also plays Captain Reese in the film) offering sound bites about the film’s realistic aspects in comparison to the standard Hollywood police action-drama. The rest of it is the standard electronic press kit-style material introducing the plot at a high-level overview.

In the Streets: (2:12) This featurette has Ayers, Gyllenhaal and Pena talking about their research into real-life police camera work, revealing that they were able to view some dashboard cam and personal camera footage from actual officers in order to get a feel for how the real thing would be. Gyllenhall makes mention of how he was basically able to become a cameraman through this film and Ayers details the physical details of the camera and its advantages in getting the kinds of shots that have not previously been viewed on film before, which added to the immediacy of the atmosphere for them.

Women on Watch: (2:02) This short focuses on the women of End of Watch from Ferrara’s police officer Orozco to Martinez and Kendrick’s roles as the girlfriends and wives of the men in blue. Kendrick is the primary person who talks in this one, discussing how her character is the outsider who finds the way in while Ferrera, Martinez, Gyllenhaal and Pena talk about the role of the women in the film and what the characters mean to each other. It’s one of the better of these short EPK featurettes in that it offers a view into the film that the others don’t.

Watch Your Six: (2:37) “Watch Your Six” takes a look at how the cast and crew took inspiration from an actual police unit, with the cast talking about the gritty realism of the film along with luminaries like LA City Council president Eric Garcetti. The short also takes a quick look at the holistic nature of the lives of the cops in question, as well as the mythic brotherhood between police officers.

Honors: (2:07) Ayer kicks this short off by talking about how Pena and Gyllenhall gave five months of dedicated time to this film; in his words, “more time than probably any other movie in their lives.” Both actors talk about the preparation they gave for this role and discuss each others’ work in the film. The short then moves onto Anna Kendrick and her work. There is a bit of congratulatory fluff here but it is kept relatively low-key and it seems sincere from the parties involved, which certainly helps.

Deleted Scenes: (46:23) An impressive forty-six minutes of deleted and alternate scenes are located on the disc, split between eighteen different scenes. This is probably not all that surprising considering the found-footage style, which often lends itself to character-building scenes which tend to not make it past the cutting room floor. There are a lot of fantastic character moments in here that really could have enhanced the film as a whole; of course some of them were better off left behind (a news report clip of the duo’s fire-related heroics is particularly superfluous), but even they are worth watching. Seeing these deleted scenes give the film even more depth than it already has, whether it is Brian and Mike showing a protective side to some of the citizens on their watch or moments that build on their relationships or scenes in the form of sit-down interviews for Brian’s documentary. There’s also an alternate ending that changes the fates of certain characters. This is well worth spending the time to watch as it adds a new dynamic to the film.

Commentary with Writer/Director David Ayer: Being the creative force behind the film as both writer and director, David Ayer has a lot to say about End of Watch and he keeps this commentary track moving along nicely. Ayer takes us through the film and starts off with explaining how his hesitance to do another cop film was overcome by the opportunity to do something different with the genre, then moves on to take us through the efforts by the cast and crew to make this film as authentic as possible, the use of the multiple camera format, the effects and performances among many other aspects. Ayer is energetic in his discussion without being over the top; he speaks in a very informed way and gives very good, solid background on the film. As commentary tracks go this is a very good one.

DVD/Ultraviolet/Digital Copy: For those who want to view the film over a variety of different formats, the combo pack includes a DVD copy (with all the special features, impressively) as well as a digital copy. An Ultraviolet copy can be redeemed for watching on different devices as well.

Special Features Rating: 7.5

The 411: Anchored by impressive performances from both Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena, End of Watch is David Ayer's best directorial effort to date. Ayers' 360 degree approach to the story and filmic style results in a more expansive and interesting examination of police characters than we have come to expect, and solid performances by the rest of the cast help cover up the few holes and shallow moments within the plot. Universal continues their run of impressive audio and visual transfers with the home video release while the commentary and deleted scenes make up for the lacking parts of the featurettes, enhancing what is already an engaging drama that stands up to repeat viewings.
411 Elite Award
Final Score:  8.5   [ Very Good ]  legend

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Jeremy Thomas

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