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Monthly Archives: July 2013

Optimism: The Unlikely Tale of the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates

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It's about time PNC Park has something to get excited about. (USA Today Sports)

It’s about time PNC Park has something to get excited about. (USA Today Sports)

“Are you starting to get excited about the Pirates?”

That question started coming, from various friends, family and co-workers, in early June. I wasn’t surprised, because I’d heard it before.

At the 2011 All-Star break, the Pirates were 47-43, a game out of first place in the NL Central. Was I excited? Sure. When your team hasn’t been relevant since before the Internet was a thing, you tend to get fired up just by looking in a newspaper and seeing “Pittsburgh” in the standings agate anywhere above last place.

At the 2012 All-Star break, the Pirates were 48-37, a game ahead of Cincinnati atop the division. Was I excited? Sure. When your team has the worst second-half winning percentage in the National League the year before, collapsing in its attempt to be relevant for the first time since before the Internet was a thing, and then picks itself up off the mat the next year, you tend to get enthused.

So here we are, just days removed from the 2013 All-Star break. The Pirates are 57-39, two games back of St. Louis in the Central. But the Cardinals are the only team they’re trailing. They have the second-best record in the NL – and the third-best in baseball – despite having a pitching staff that’s used 11 starters and a lineup that has more terrifying hazards than your average Links golf course.

But this whole second-half swoon wasn’t exclusive to 2011. The 2012 Bucs’ high-water mark was 63-47, on August 8. From there? 16-36, the worst record in the National League, and one that prevented them from the club’s first .500 finish since 1992.

So as we sit here, on July 22, with the Pirates three games into a critical 15-game stretch that includes 12 against Cincinnati, Washington and St. Louis – the very clubs they’re chasing or trying to run from. Am I still optimistic?

You’re damn right I am.

The Pedro Alvarez mantra: See ball. Hit ball far. Or strike out. (AP)

The Pedro Alvarez mantra: See ball. Hit ball far. Or strike out. (AP)

That’s a far cry from how I would have described my general mindset about this team as recently as 365 days ago. For years, it was all too easy to climb all over every aspect of the organization, from the ownership (downtrodden under Kevin McClatchy) to the general managers (Dave Littlefield’s incompetence deserves its own museum) to the leaders on the field (was John Russell a real person?) to the players (J.J. Furmaniak, Chance Sanford, Steve Bieser, John Raynor and Dusty Brown aren’t insurance salesmen. They all had at least a venti double latte with the Pirates, though they were probably selling insurance within 48 hours of their last miserable at-bats in Pittsburgh.).

That’s not to say this current bunch isn’t without its offensive warts. There’s a .310 on-base percentage that’s 23rd in baseball, a 25.0 percent swing-and-miss rate that’s only better than two teams, and a .225 average with runners in scoring position that’s dead last. And oh, by the way, have you met Brandon Inge, Clint Barmes, Josh Harrison and Michael McKenry? That’s essentially 80 percent of the team’s bench, and they each have an OPS about the size of a slightly overweight NFL offensive lineman.

I’ve been hesitant to write a column about this team, impressive as it’s played, but even if there’s a third straight collapse in the Pirates’ future, it’s hard NOT to be positive at this point about the organization’s future. Andrew McCutchen is under team control through 2018 at less than $10 million a year over the life of the deal, which was completed prior to his MVP-caliber 2012 season. Imagine if a movie studio had been able to lock up Jennifer Lawrence for the next half-decade prior to The Hunger Games and Silver Linings Playbook being released. That’s essentially what the Pirates have in McCutchen.

McCutchen is the star, but the major league cast around him – barren as recently as the beginning of last season – is on a serious upswing. Pedro Alvarez still strikes out a ton, but he’s homering once every 13 or so at-bats. That’s better than everyone but Chris Davis, Raul Ibanez and Miguel Cabrera, and by Pirates standards, puts him in Ralph Kiner/Willie Stargell territory. He’s still under team control through 2016. Gerrit Cole, the top pick in the 2011 draft, is seven starts into his career, and while there’s much to work on, he possesses a 100 mph fastball – something few, if any, Pirates pitchers ever have. Get that secondary stuff working and he’s a No. 1 starter. Starling Marte, thought of by plenty of high-profile baseball people as someone whose plate discipline would prevent him from ever being more than a modest contributor, has 38 extra-base hits, has stolen 28 bases and is one of the better defensive outfielders in baseball.

The Pirates are spending money on right fielders only to keep the seat warm for Gregory Polanco. (Pittsburgh Sports Report)

The Pirates are spending money on right fielders only to keep the seat warm for Gregory Polanco. (Pittsburgh Sports Report)

More help is on the way. The Pirates’ farm system, ranked 21st by ESPN’s Keith Law as recently as 2011, was called the best in the majors in early June by a longtime scout speaking with Yahoo!’s Jeff Passan. Depending on whose rankings you go by these days, Pittsburgh now has as many as four of baseball’s top 50 prospects – with its two top-15 picks in the first round of this year’s draft (Austin Meadows and Reese McGuire) yet to be factored in. The two best, right-hander Jameson Taillon and right fielder Gregory Polanco, are top-20 prospects in the entire minor leagues and could be calling PNC Park home by next summer.

“It’s the Pirates,” a longtime scout told Yahoo!’s Jeff Passan of baseball’s best farm system. “And I’m not sure it’s close.”

Barring some massive mismanagement and/or horrendous luck – both of which are unfortunately second-nature to this organization – the Pirates should be well-positioned to contend for the rest of this decade.

But a lot that’s supposed to go right tends to go wrong in baseball. Contention, even in the days of two wild-card teams, isn’t guaranteed – even if you build what on paper looks like the best team the Miami Marlins don’t want to pay for or feature Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton on the marquee.

So why can’t 2013 be the year the Pirates not only wipe out their streak of losing seasons but also make the playoffs? Here are four reasons why they will.

1.) They can essentially get away with being the Colorado Rockies

But the Rockies are nothing more than an afterthought in the NL playoff race, you’re saying. They’re 48-51, basically the definition of mediocrity. The Rockies have a winning percentage of .485. Let’s say the Pirates, clearly a better team than Colorado, win at a .485 clip the rest of the way even after playing essentially .600 baseball through nearly 100 games. That still puts them at 89 wins. In seven of the last eight seasons – 2010 is the exception – 89 wins would have been enough to earn the Pirates a playoff spot in the NL, assuming we were operating under a two wild-card format.

2.) Their schedule is quite manageable

The Pirates have 66 games left. Forty of those are against teams below .500. The Reds have 35 left against losing clubs, the Cardinals 31. If Pittsburgh wants to have a shot at catching (presumably) St. Louis for the division, though, it will almost certainly need to have a lead by the time the teams’ season series ends Sept. 8. The Cardinals’ last NINETEEN GAMES are against teams currently sporting losing records. Their slate for the next six weeks is brutal.

But really, if the Pirates are going to have a shot at the division, it’ll be because they beat St. Louis head to head. Starting Monday, 14 of the Bucs’ next 39 games are against the Cardinals.

Jeff Locke's season has been a bit hard to explain. (USA Today Sports)

Jeff Locke’s season has been a bit hard to explain. (USA Today Sports)

3.) Regression? How about progression?

Anytime you hear most folks talk about the Pirates’ stunning first half, you’re reminded how ripe they are for regression. Example No. 1: “Jeff Locke cannot possibly continue to pitch this well.” Absolutely true. His .226 opponents’ batting average on balls in play is on pace to be the NL’s lowest since Tom Browning and Pascual Perez – in 1988. Example No. 2: “The bullpen can’t keep up their good fortune when it comes to stranding runners.” Almost certainly true as well. Pirates pitchers are allowing only 19.6 of inherited runners to score, a figure that would be baseball’s third-best since that data started being collected in 1974. Locke is not Clayton Kershaw, and the Pirates’ bullpen is not the infallible group it’s almost always been through 96 games.

But Locke also doesn’t suck, despite some opinions to the contrary. What if he’s Ted Lilly, who had similar SO/9, BB/9 and swing-and-miss percentages during some of his prime years – which, by the way, were pretty good? I’ll take that as the presumed third starter on a potential playoff team.

The bullpen’s BABIP is .255, easily the best in the league, but why can’t this team be the 2012 A’s, who led the league with a .253 BABIP? Oakland rode a talented but journeyman closer (Grant Balfour, not unlike Jason Grilli) and a stud setup guy (Ryan Cook, not unlike Mark Melancon) to a 94-68 record and a division title.

What did the A’s hit last year? .238, behind the Pirates’ .243 average so far in 2013. That bunch did hit .265 with runners in scoring position, which has a lot more to do with luck than being clutch when you’re talking about teams that are virtually the same otherwise. I’m 99% sure the Pirates are going to finish the year hitting better than .225 with runners in scoring position, but if they don’t? The 2011 Rays hit .224 with men on second and third, and they made the playoffs.

And this is as good of a reason as any as to why the Pirates might even have a decent shot to catch the Cardinals. St. Louis is hitting .338 (!!!) with runners in scoring position. Baseball’s previous best team in such situations hit .311. It’s a full FIFTY points higher than the next-best team in 2013. What are the Cardinals hitting when there’s either a man on first or the bases are empty? .256!

If you’re not fully satisfied with “clutch” being little more than a fluke, maybe a little late-game info will help. There’s a close-and-late stat that’s defined as at-bats that occur in the seventh inning or later in a game tied, within one run or with the tying run on base, at bat or on deck. The Pirates’ .260 close-and-late average is baseball’s sixth-best. The Cards’ .230 average is 21st. St. Louis is a better offensive team than Pittsburgh – no argument here. But the extent to which the Cardinals’ ability to come through in key situations is being vastly overblown, and that gap figures to be considerably closer 10 weeks from now. Possibly thanks, in some part to ….

4.) A move or moves that could be made

We’re just over a week away from the trading deadline, and Neal Huntington almost certainly figures to upgrade the Pirates’ offense in some way. Right field is the biggest need, as the Pirates’ .656 OPS from that position is worse than anyone’s but Houston. (St. Louis leads the majors with a .914 OPS from right.)

Brandon Inge in spring training, perfecting the look Pirate fans would share during every Inge plate appearance. (USA Today Sports)

Brandon Inge in spring training, perfecting the look Pirate fans would share during every Inge plate appearance. (USA Today Sports)

Huntington probably isn’t going to make a big splash – he isn’t getting Giancarlo Stanton, and potential best-case-scenario Alex Rios likely is only a modest upgrade –

but the trickle-down effect could be significant. This team, as constructed on July 22, has a bench that features Inge, Harrison, McKenry, Travis Snider and whichever part of the Garrett Jones/Gaby Sanchez/Jose Tabata 1B/RF platoon isn’t playing.

A month from now, there’s a possibility only Jones/Sanchez/Tabata are even on the roster. Tony Sanchez could replace McKenry as the backup catcher. Inge and Harrison will be long gone. Snider might be dead weight once a trade is made. Clint Barmes will be back there. Strengthening the bench, for a team that plans on being involved in quite a few one-run games, is of paramount importance.


Will this fist pump be happening in October? (AP)

Will this fist pump be happening in October? (AP)

Now, a one-tiered rebuttal for why this team will not make the playoffs.


There’s a long, long LONG way to go. Maybe the regression will outweigh the progression. Maybe Alvarez goes in a two-month slump. Maybe McCutchen’s second-half tear never quite materializes. Maybe people will be reflecting on the season in October, thinking “Grilli and Melancon were All-Stars?!?” Maybe Huntington fails to provide an upgrade at the deadline, or god forbid, ships out Taillon or Polanco for a two-month rental.

That’s a lot of maybes. But there are 66 games to go. That’s a number that’s usually meant good things for this city.


Shrewd Food: The Pulled Pork Sandwich You’ve Been Missing

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This is close to what your pulled pork sandwich will look like. But this recipe features andouille sausage, which we won't be using, and a lousy excuse for a bun. (Food Network Magazine)

This is close to what your pulled pork sandwich will look like. But this recipe features andouille sausage, which we won’t be using, and a lousy excuse for a bun. It also lacks coleslaw. So really, ignore this. (Food Network Magazine)

Let’s get something out of the way up front. I’m here to bring people together. To unite the unwashed masses who consider a four-course combo (just $10.99!) at Applebee’s fine dining with the dressed-to the-nines crowd who won’t eat anything without foie gras or black truffles and refuses to wash that decadent meal down without some coffee produced from a bean that’s, um, processed by a mammal from Southeast Asia.

Listen, I get it. Some people are picky eaters, actually regressing from the strained fruits and vegetables they ate as infants to a diet that consists of animal by-products formed into dinosaur shapes and passed off as chicken nuggets at fast-food chains. Others have a silver spoon of caviar pate jammed so far down their throat that they refuse to even acknowledge a meal that doesn’t consist of at least 14 courses each served on plates slightly smaller than your average tin of Altoids.

I’m trying. Trying to find something that can satisfy the palate of Long John Silver’s First Mate of the Month and the guy who is dying for someone to accompany him to Morton’s so he can fill out his “Buy 9 chateaubriands and get the 10th free” card. And I’m pretty sure there’s one meal out there, one item so simple and delectable, so juicy and salty and satisfying that you can wander down to your local bar and find one or suit up, grab your favorite foodie friends, head to the trendiest spot in town and still spot it on a menu.

I speak, of course, of the pulled pork sandwich.

It’s one of the best edible examples of worlds colliding. What is pulled pork made of? Almost exclusively a shoulder cut, which should set you back somewhere around $2 a pound. There’s actually two types of “shoulder” meat – the Boston butt, which is located nowhere near the pig’s ass, and the picnic shoulder. The Boston butt typically comes with a shoulder blade in, while the picnic shoulder features a front leg bone and joint. I went with the Boston butt, but either will work. As long as you see “shoulder” somewhere on the packaging, you’re ready to cook. Slap all that knowledge on the next friend who tries to sell you on the benefits of buying Beluga caviar for $300 an ounce. Or really just stop hanging out with that person, because who actually enjoys the company of someone who spends a decent chunk of an average person’s mortgage on a spoonful of fish eggs?

When I get confused about what I'm cooking, I just consult the trusty ol' pig anatomy chart. (

When I get confused about what I’m cooking, I just consult the trusty ol’ pig anatomy chart. (

At the same time, you can turn that modest cut of meat into a gourmet delight with the right bun, the proper toppings and some patient cooking. Is it a $1,000 frittata of lobster and caviar? Not quite. If you buy a four- to five-pound pork shoulder, own a slow cooker and can scrounge up the remaining basic ingredients from around your kitchen you should be out about $10. That leaves you $990 leftover to lavish the friends you’ll be inviting over to indulge in the delicious sandwiches you’re about to create with expensive, elaborate gifts, but you won’t need to. They’ll be the ones patting you on the back, chanting your name and having enough fancy Brookstone massage chairs delivered to your home to ensure they’ll be invited back for the next time you decide to take 10 hours and 10 minutes out of your day (active prep time: 10 minutes!) to satiate their craving for a rich, scrumptious piece of pig between buns.

Let’s get started.

Your local grocery store should have pork shoulder available, pre-cut, in the meat department, but in case they don’t, the butcher should be able to help you out. Again, you should be paying somewhere around $2 a pound, and we’re looking for anything more than three pounds and less than whatever the largest thing that will fit in your crock pot is.

Find one. Now.

Find one. Now.

Speaking of crock pots … dig yours out of the farthest-reaching crevice in the cupboard you last opened when Compuserve was providing your dial-up Internet service. Once you’ve dusted that off, wash it thoroughly with soap. Rinse it, and wash it again. Smell it, and wash it one more time to make sure you’ve completely eliminated the dust, food crumbs from the Clinton administration and the bugs who were once the patriarchs of an entire colony of other bugs, but have since succumbed to being stuck in a crock pot without oxygen for a decade and a half. (Also, once you get cooking, go back and clean out that cupboard to ensure you’ve also wiped out his still-surviving descendants).

I’m about to ask you for six ingredients, five of which you should be able to find within three to four and a half seconds in your pantry. We’ll also be requiring a whisk and a measuring cup, though neither is entirely necessary. Out in the cold on these two? Get a spoon. You’ll be just fine.

Find some vinegar, ketchup, mustard, brown sugar and water. Ideally you’ll have apple cider vinegar and some sort of spicy brown mustard to further enhance the flavor of Babe: Pig in the City’s shoulder, but if you don’t, there’s no reason to hop into your car and run to Whole Foods.

Add water to these five, and voila! Pseudo-barbeque sauce.

I suggest only a robust molasses, because that’s what Grandma’s would want.

Here’s where the measuring cup – or spoon! – comes in. Keep in mind, we’re dealing with somewhere around a four- to five-pound pork shoulder for these proportions. Or don’t keep that in mind, because this isn’t baking. It’s inexact, and that’s what’s great about it. Toss about a half-cup of apple cider vinegar and a third of a cup of ketchup and brown mustard into the crock pot. Fill that half-cup back up three times with water to coat the bottom of the pot, then take about three spoonfuls of brown sugar and add that with your vinegar, ketchup, mustard and water.

Ahh, but I told you we’d require six ingredients! We still need about a spoonful of molasses, and if you can’t find that in your cupboard, or notice that it expired in July 2003, don’t panic. Think of the oldest person you know who lives within a block of you, grab your keys and go knock on their door with a smile on your face and a twinkle in your eye. They will have molasses. Bring a vessel to carry that spoonful of molasses back with you so you don’t have to make a return trip, because they’ll then ask you questions about what you’re making, and you don’t have all day.

(Actually, you do. But depending on which neighbor we’re talking about, you could wind up regretting your lack of molasses vessel preparation).

So you have your molasses. Dump that into the crock pot, take a whisk – or that versatile, trusty spoon – and stir until you’re left with nothing but a smooth liquid.

Head back to the cupboard, grab a small bowl and get ready to grab a few more ingredients. You didn’t put that brown sugar away, did you? Good, you’ll need it again. Drop a few more spoonfuls of that into the bowl. Head to the spice cabinet and grab paprika, cumin and garlic powder. Take about a teaspoon, or perhaps a little bit more, of each and add them to the brown sugar. I assume you have some sea salt and black pepper sitting around because after all, we live in a society and we’re not gnomes parking ourselves under a bridge at night. Sprinkle about a tablespoon of salt and a teaspoon or so of pepper into your mix.

You should have all of these things. If you don't, you should probably be eating at KFC more often.

You should have all of these things. If you don’t, you should probably be eating at KFC more often.

You don’t need a whisk for this. Shake it around in the bowl, stir it with a spoon, a fork, your finger, a fire hose or some other sort of elongated object until it looks like the spices have formed one big, happy spice family.

Unwrap your pork shoulder from the refrigerator and set it on a plate. Dump about a third of your spice mix on top and start rubbing it in to coat the meat. Flip it over and take another third or so to put on that side. Flip it back over and take the remaining mix to get any areas you may have missed or look generally unhappy because they don’t have delicious salt, pepper, cumin, garlic power, heroin, paprika and brown sugar all over them.

(Heroin? How’d that sneak in there??!? Just making sure you didn’t give up after your journey to find molasses.)

Take your pork shoulder and slowly drop it into the crock pot, which should have the liquid we so competently whisked together resting in the bottom. Drop the lid on. Plug it in. Turn it to low.

A Google image search for pork shoulder turned up a picture of former Mets closer Billy Wagner. Again, I can't endorse Google images enough.

A Google image search for “pork shoulder” turned up a picture of former Mets closer Billy Wagner. Again, I can’t endorse Google images enough.

You now have 10 hours free to do what you wish. From Chicago, I can drive to St. Louis, grab lunch and drive back, but why would I want to drive to St. Louis? So take in a movie. Get a massage. Finish that cross-stitching project you started in the fall but haven’t gotten around to since because cross-stitching just isn’t that interesting. Or, you know, go to work.

But there are three minor but SO, SO MAJOR tasks you’ll want to complete before that 10-hour window expires. Here goes:

1) Buy buns. Not shitty, disgusting hamburger buns that multiply like mosquitoes on the table at your average summer cookout. Real buns. Buns that can hold up to the sloppy and disgustingly delicious pulled pork you’re about a Ken Burns documentary away from being able to taste. You should be able to find a bolillo or telera roll at your local grocer. They’ll set you back around 60 cents apiece and be worth every last penny. Oh, and buy lots. You’re gonna have a lot of meat.

2) Make coleslaw. Or buy it premade. It can be more mayonnaise-based or more vinegar-based. It doesn’t matter, because it’s merely going to complement the delicious hunks of pig you’ll be putting between those two pieces of bread. You’ll notice it, and it will make your sandwich better, but you won’t remember if there’s creamy cabbage, tangy cabbage or Tuscan dark chocolate in there by the time you’re three bites in.

3) Get pickle chips. Again, what kind you opt for is entirely a personal choice. If you can’t find chips, get spears and slice them up. If you can’t find dill pickles, get garlic ones. The pickles are simply here to add some crunch and a bit of acidity to your sinful swine delight. Literally anything that’s been pickled will enhance your sandwich.

Alright, you’ve completed the above tasks, watched C-Span for a while, checked up on the soap opera you ignored since Sabrina starting sleeping with Carlton’s evil twin, returned the molasses to the neighbor who can’t remember who you are (because you forgot to bring your molasses vessel!) and mastered most of Rosetta Stone’s Swahili software. It’s time to eat.

Remove the wonderful-smelling pork shoulder from the crock pot and set it on a cutting board, or really any surface that people don’t walk on. Take the remaining liquid and dump it into an appropriately large skillet – I said LARGE – and turn to a medium-high heat. Do this until it boils, then turn it down to simmer for 10 or 15 minutes.

When you remove your pork shoulder from the crock pot, it will look exactly like this.

When you remove your pork shoulder from the crock pot, it will look exactly like this.

You pork shoulder has cooled? Wonderful! Start pulling it apart, either with your hands or with your hands and a fork. Or you could just use a fork, because you invited over lots of friends and family to share your dinner with and they don’t want your disgusting hands touching their food. Shred into chunks no larger than you deem appropriate, because you’re a human being and you’ve eaten plenty of pulled pork sandwiches and therefore know approximately what the average chunk of pork in a pulled pork sandwich should look like.

When you’re done, drop it in that LARGE skillet you’ve been using to heat the juices from the bottom of the crock pot. Toss the pork around, make a juvenile, sophomoric That’s What She Said joke, and you’re ready to serve.

One final note before assembly. You will not need barbeque sauce for this meal. I know, you’ve read almost 2,000 words hoping to see the words BARBEQUE SAUCE and nothing but those words. You’re now disappointed that you even took 10 hours out of your day to make this dish, because all you wanted was a rather large hunk of pig to serve as the vehicle to your genuine thirst for barbeque sauce, because dousing pork in barbeque sauce and then eating it is a more socially acceptable way to consume barbeque sauce than drinking it out of the jar.

Turn your mind back 10 hours. Remember all those wet ingredients we mixed up in the bottom of the crock pot? Other than a little liquid smoke, that’s essentially a barbeque sauce right there. I’m not saying you can’t add outside barbeque sauce to this meal. I’m not saying I’ll mind if you use it. But you don’t NEED it. The liquid your pulled pieces of pork shoulder are now sitting in is more than enough flavor to suffice. If you’re not sufficiently satisfied that this is REAL BARBEQUE because It lacks the requisite smoky flavor you’re used to getting from every barbeque joint that’s sold you a pulled pork sandwich, too bad. The one you’re about to eat is going to be better than any pulled pork you’ve had previously.

Cut your bun in half, warm it in the oven and pile on enough pork to fill the bottom of that bun. Then add some more. Maybe just a BIT more. Add some cole slaw. I trust you to eyeball it at this point. Grab three or four pickle slices and spread them out across the top, or grab a few more if you’re a true American and are on board with pickle chips being the most delicious things you regularly consume.

Put the top of the bun on. You can cut it in half or just leave it as is. You won’t need a napkin, because shirt sleeves are far more functional and way better for the environment. But before you sit down, crack open an ice-cold beverage and take that first double-fisted bite of the astonishing creation some sweet vinegary liquid, a salty, flavorful rub and the silent art of a slow cooker has provided you, grab a fork.

You’re gonna need it.

Endgame. What are you waiting for? Dig in!

Endgame. What are you waiting for? Dig in!

Queue Review: End of Watch

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End of Watch 1

Any movie that revolves around two central characters – not necessarily the two top-billed stars on the poster, but a clearly defined duo – is taking a sizable risk. A film can overcome an underwhelming leading man or lady with some supporting help and a captivating plot, just as an ensemble cast can withstand a few less interesting characters without the entire film being dragged down.

But by having a pair of stars in virtually every scene in the film, rising and falling together, the chemistry between the two has to sparkle. Otherwise you’re left with Katie Holmes and everyone who has starred opposite Katie Holmes.

The most common genres in which this is the case are romance and comedy, with the obvious crossover of romantic comedies – which can be particularly cringe-worthy without some spark between that central combo. But this can also be true in action movies, and you’re not going to find better chemistry between two actors than what Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena provide in End of Watch.

If you don’t remember End of Watch being in theatres last fall, you’re not alone. It was released in late September – hardly a booming time for the box office – and finished the year as the 83rd-highest grossing domestic film, putting it behind such massive hits as What to Expect When You’re Expecting, The Cabin in the Woods, Red Tails, something called The Possession, and the FIFTH disastrous sequel in the Resident Evil series. Until I ran across the title on Netflix Instant a few days ago, I’d have been just as convinced it was some sort of straight-to-DVD release about Robert Pattinson looking for a lost Rolex as I would have been about it being a gritty pseudo-documentary style thriller about a pair of LA police officers.

At its heart, though, End of Watch is a buddy cop movie. It’s just a considerably more tense, far more ambitious, much-better executed and way-better acted version than you’re used to.

End of Watch 2

Gyllenhaal and Pena are officers Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala, mid-to-late 20-something partners in a South Central precinct. The film opens with them on a high-speed pursuit through Los Angeles that the audience sees through the eyes of a dashboard camera, part of a film project Gyllenhaal’s Taylor is working on.

Taylor and Zavala are also wearing small cameras on their lapels, much to the dismay of their fellow officers, their captain, and, if you’re like me, the viewer. But after some early overuse of the dashboard and lapel cams, and some rather shaky handheld footage, director David Ayer – who also penned and helmed Training Day – pulls back on the documentary style while still making the audience feel like we’re in the center of the chase.

We find out Taylor and Zavala became fast friends coming up together at the police academy, but that’s nothing more than a generic backstory without these two making us believe they’ve known each other for years – and spent as much or more time around their partner than their spouse. Zavala has been married since he was 18, while Taylor is still looking for a relationship as significant as the one he has inside his police cruiser.

We meet and spend time around both Zavala’s wife, played well by Natalie Martinez, and Taylor’s girlfriend, the always delightful and slightly underused Anna Kendrick, but the relationship we care about is the one between the two guys sitting in the front of the Crown Victoria. Gyllenhaal and Pena have such a convincing chemistry, a witty rapport, and such off-the-cuff, natural back-and-forth banter that it seems like they spent hours upon hours hanging out together in preparation for the role.

“David (Ayer) didn’t want us to be actors,” Gyllenhaal told The Guardian’s Catherine Shoard. “He’s like: ‘You guys will die for each other.’ I’m like: ‘Oh, shit. How am I gonna do this?’ We spent so much time together. We were always sparring. And when somebody punches you in the face you realize, like, I’m gonna fight! It wasn’t like any Hollywood shit; it was really getting down and dirty.”

Turns out, they did! The two spent five months going out on LAPD ridealongs, two to three times a week for 12-hour increments. And that was after Gyllenhaal WITNESSED A MURDER on his first day in the backseat. Gyllenhaal estimated he and Pena went out 50 times in all, and it shows. Had these two appeared on set for Day One of shooting having never met, this is an entirely different, and almost certainly forgettable, film. While Ayer’s script is tight and the directing strong, no audience is investing itself in Taylor and Zavala without Gyllenhaal and Pena legitimately seeming like they’re each other’s best friend and most trusted ally.

Gyllenhaal’s case as an actor at age 32 is an interesting one. His resume isn’t full of massive box office hits like Damon, DiCaprio and Clooney, but there are far more hits than misses. For every The Day After Tomorrow, there’s three or four movies like Zodiac, Jarhead and Brokeback Mountain. Donnie Darko is one of the most uniquely intriguing yet bizarre films of the last 20 years. The Good Girl is a watchable if somewhat flawed cable flick. Brothers allowed Gyllenhaal and Tobey Maguire to fulfill their on-screen destiny as brothers, since I’m still convinced they’re related in some way. And 2011’s Source Code is one of the more underrated sci-fi thrillers in recent memory.

Things were like, so angsty in the Middle Ages, bro.

Things were like, so angsty in the Middle Ages, bro.

You rarely think of Gyllenhaal as a surefire box-office draw, though. Aside from The Day After Tomorrow, none of his films has grossed $100 million. That’s why you can forgive him for the occasional Prince of Persia flick, which surpassed the $90 million barrier and at least gave him the opportunity to look like he was trying out for Game of Thrones and an emo 90s grunge band on the same day without a change of clothes handy.

End of Watch Pena, on the other hand, is as much of a multiplex draw as candied tofu – yet that’s hardly an indication of his acting ability. It’s been almost a decade since he turned in an impressive performance in a Best Picture winner – albeit one as heavily criticized as Crash – and he also appeared in Million Dollar Baby that same year. Pena hasn’t had a true standout role since, but perhaps that will change as he’s about to play the title character in a Cesar Chavez biopic and star alongside Brad Pitt next year in the World War II film Fury.

End of Watch starts out relatively small, with Taylor and Zavala chasing drive-by shooters and responding to domestic disturbances, but the two quickly find themselves overstepping their bounds and infringing on an incident that’s on the DEA’s radar and way above their pay grade. The action escalates from there, but there’s always an overriding sense of humor and genuine closeness between the two officers even as their professional lives take some unexpected turns. The climax isn’t hard to see coming, but it’s still quite different, and the way they get there – and the film’s coda – still make it a more-than-satisfactory conclusion.

As a Netflix Instant offering, this is truly fantastic material, but I’d suggest seeking it out no matter which way you intend to watch. It’s one of the best action movies of the last five years and has, in all honesty, one of the eight or 10 most memorable screen duos I can recall. Glover and Gibson, Murphy and Nolte and Hanks and Hooch may have set the bar high for the buddy cop genre in the late 80s, but it took Gyllenhaal and Pena to raise it more than a quarter-century later – different as the approach may be. Drama with a sense of levity, humor with a splash of peril and a duo with through-the-roof chemistry make End of Watch a must-watch.

CHECKING THE SCORE: 4.5 stars out of 5