Staff Reviews

End of Watch and Deadfall

Jake Gyllenhaal and Eric Bana in tales of cops and robbers.


End of Watch is a tough little cop thriller with standout performances by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña. Unfortunately, writer-director David Ayer, who specializes in this sort of LAPD action item (he also scripted Training Day), has lumbered the film with a gimmick that's implausible, distracting, and altogether uncalled-far. Still, the movie is worth seeing; and since it's now being relaunched (it was originally released in September), there's a fresh chance to do so.

Gyllenhaal and Peña are two veteran patrolmen—Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala—cruising the very mean streets of South Central L.A. They love being cops, and their trash-talking camaraderie, with Taylor firing off jibes about Zavala's Mexican-American folkways and Zavala responding with pungent japes about Taylor's lame white-boy enthusiasms, has the glow of real friendship (and often the tang of what feels like in-the-moment improvisation). Both men are romantically attached: Zavala has a beautiful pregnant wife (Natalie Martinez) and Taylor has just found the non-bimbo of his dreams (Anna Kendrick). But the picture is essentially a series of squad-car calls that bring them to the scenes of various drug shootouts, street beatings, and general gangbanger mayhem. A lot of this is rousing, bloody stuff. But then there's the unfortunate gimmick.

The director has saddled Gyllenhaal's character with a video camera, with which he records what appears to be his every waking moment. How he could manage to do this in the midst of dangerous crime-fighting operations, and from occasionally impossible angles, is an annoying mystery. In addition, there's a car full of nasty characters on the two cops' trail, and they have a camera, too. All of this shaky-cam footage creates a pronounced Blair Witch effect. And since the movie's traditional observational passages are shot in an equally shaky way, it's sometimes hard to tell exactly which we're supposed to be seeing. This stylistic strategy is certainly unique in a cop film, but it's irritating from start to finish.

On the other hand, Gyllenhaal has rarely been given such a complex character to portray, and he digs into it. And Peña has a charismatic warmth that lights up the movie—he may be just one bust-out role away from name-brand stardom. The picture is nicely balanced between savage violence and sweet human interactions, and it whips along at a brisk pace. The multi-camera nonsense was a bad decision, but the rest of the movie is worth trying to ignore it for.      


Deadfall has most of the elements of a good tricky noir: sex, love, doom, death. But the movie is dogged by intermittent listlessness, and it never quite comes together. About halfway in you can tell that the film itself is doomed.

Eric Bana and Olivia Wilde are Addison and Liza, two screwed-up siblings on the run after a big casino heist. Addison is a personable psychopath, Liza a needy emotional mess. When their getaway car crashes in the snow-blown wilds of rural Michigan, Addison decides they should split up and try to make their separate ways to Canada (where the movie was actually shot). He tells her to start hitchhiking, while he takes off into the snowy woods.

Meanwhile, a young man named Jay (Charlie Hunnam, of Sons of Anarchy) is being released from prison. Jay was a promising boxer before he was ordered to throw a match. Now, it being Thanksgiving, he just wants to go home to his mom (Sissy Spacek) and disapproving dad (Kris Kristofferson). First, though, he wants to confront the creep who ratted him out for taking a dive in the ring. Unfortunately, he winds up half-killing the guy. Panicked, he takes off in his truck—and soon comes upon Liza, freezing at the side of the road. He picks her up and asks her name. "What do you want it to be?" she says, in a cutesy-annoying way. Soon they've pulled in at a cozy tavern, and then checked into an attached motel, where Liza has her way with Jay in the customary R-rated manner.

At the same time, Addison is wreaking havoc across the countryside. He kills a lone woodsman for his snowmobile, then shoots a drunk he finds throwing his wife out of their cabin in the middle of a blizzard. "I'm like an angel," he tells the two little kids cowering inside, "come down from the storm to remove that man from your life." (It's suggested that Addison might have removed his own drunken dad in a similar way.)  

Soon the cops are on Addison's trail, among them a young officer named Hanna (Kate Mara), who's also the daughter of the local sheriff (Treat Williams). Hanna's dad finds her useless, and lets her know it at every opportunity. By now you're probably detecting a theme.

All of these characters end up at Jay's family home for Thanksgiving dinner (turkey and gunfire are on the menu). This concluding section of the film wanders on too long, and you soon start counting the moments till just desserts are served.

The movie works up a sense of arctic isolation with considerable skill (props to cinematographer Shane Hurlbut and snow-wise Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky), and some of the action is startlingly bloody. But the rampant daddy issues are overly schematic; and while Wilde and Mara are affecting as two very different kinds of troubled girl, Bana is too mildly hunky to be convincing as a total nutjob. The movie has been airing on cable VOD for more than a month now, and that may be the best place to catch it.