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.
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.
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.
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