Uh-oh, I sense this is going to be my most controversial film blog to date. I can already hear the incredulous counterattack. Am I really daring to say that the recently-released police procedure film End of Watch is actually a better movie than the timelessly awesome, Oscar-winning classic known as Braveheart? I am.
Hear me out.
I’m not actually comparing the two films head to head because they’re not particularly similar; its apples and oranges. One film is a contemporary urban drama, day-in-the-life, buddy-buddy movie and the other is a sweeping, epic adventure tale of mid-evil history.
Also, I’m not absolutely positive that End of Watch is better than Braveheart. It’s probably an overstatement that I’m using to manipulate the masses into reading my blog (hey, at least I’m honest about it). But I will end this post with some direct comparisons between the two films to be fair.
Mainly, I’m using Braveheart as my anchor point because Braveheart is a fantastic movie, and everyone knows it, and I’m trying to say that End of Watch is, surprisingly enough, of this ilk.
Now, when I’m comparing the two films in my mind I’m using a very broad and general barometer — to what degree is this film emotionally compelling and artistically constructed? I think End of Watch gets the slight edge against Braveheart. Now you know I mean business. And I’ll add:
End of Watch is by far the best movie I’ve seen all year.
It may be the best movie I’ve seen in the last five years.
So, onwards to my point: What makes End of Watch so great?
I’ll say a bit about the story itself but I’m going make my arguments on the broadest possible level of here’s why this movie is a divine piece of narrative. You don’t need to know details, and you definitely don’t need to know the spoilers to understand my reasoning.
End of Watch is the story of two beat cops, Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala, at the start of the career. They’re beat cops in one of the toughest districts of inner-city L.A. The action involves two levels — their daily routine and lifestyle as competent patrolmen and fun-loving human beings and (during the final act) their unintentional involvement in the cartel’s activities in the local neighborhoods. I promise this point is not a spoiler. It’s a part of the story’s setup (and the trailer gives it away anyway).
That’s it. That’s the story.
Good stories are simple ones. Braveheart is the story of one man who leads a rebel army against an imperialist Empire. See, simple.
Now, let’s talk about what makes this simple story so special and, yes, grippingly complex.
The first and most fundamental aspect of any great movie is the characters, the protagonists. You have to identify with them. If you don’t care about them, then you won’t care about the action that swirls around them, and happens to them. What makes a character highly identifiable is not exactly a science. For instance, I used to think that identifiable characters had to be people we liked, but Walter White is practically Scarface at this point and yet Breaking Bad remains the best series on television.
So, in theory, we don’t have to love Brian and Mike, and yet we do. We really love them. We respect them, we understand who they are and how they experience things internally — and they live layered, imperfect and inspired lives. This is a key first step. I’m going to remember Brian and Mike for a while; maybe not as long as William Wallace but for a while. The characters achieve this status in the mind of the audience partly through their good deeds as cops. They’re skillful at car and foot chases, and they rescue innocent children from burning houses. That’s pretty likable, but what really drives this point home is their friendship with each other. They love each other. It’s a deep bond, and it’s completely organic. This is driven home in a thousand different ways. There are drunken-wedding scenes where they, with unsettling seriousness, commit to taking care of each other’s kids if the other dies; we see how hard it is for them to say such a thing to each other, and how it’s a sentiment that’s been earned by experience. And on the other end of this spectrum there are scenes in which Brian and Mike are just chilling in the patrol car, telling dirty jokes and shooting the breeze; we see how they not only finish each other’s sentences but have profoundly let down their guard around each other.
This isn’t some spoof on friendship, or simply another ‘bromance.’ This is the very genuine development of a truly impenetrable and special bond between two people. Don’t worry, I’m not going to compare it to the romantic bond between William Wallace and his assassinated wife, the beloved Murron MacClannough, but I could. And this film is also about how this loving dynamic is affected by the larger context, just as the Wallace-MacClannough dynamic kick-started the Scottish rebellion. In End of Watch the police procedural turns into a murder mystery as Brian and Mike make random street busts and unintentionally come up against the Mexican drug cartel. Suffice it to say the two intensely-charged and opposing forces line up in conflict with each other, and rocket toward each other in an intense face-off.
Here are some additional reasons to bolster my argument that End of Watch is better than Braveheart.
The team of talent that surrounds the film serves a critical role. Braveheart was a Mel Gibson production with help from one of the best cinematographer in the business and a cast of acclaimed British actors.
In End of Watch we have Jake Gyllenhal and Michael Pena as the two leads. Gyllenhal long ago stopped being just a pretty face. He’s as extremely underrated and has as much emotional range, charisma and technical gifts as the top tier of actors. He’s famous for the right reasons. And if Michael Pena wasn’t famous before (excellent supporting roles in Crash and Babel) he will be now. Again, they are terrific actors. As great actors, they construct an interpersonal dynamic where they seem truly, almost unconsciously comfortable around each other, where they appear to fully knowledgeable and caring of the other. And, as great actors, they fully inhabit their roles, displaying convincing mannerisms and moment-to-moment proficiencies of highly skilled police officers. Watch how quickly and clearly Jake Gyllenhaal mutters status updates into his walkie-talkie, or how athletically Michael Pena kicks down a door. In a weird way I actually think both these performances are more affecting than Mel Gibson as William Wallace.
Ooh, that’s definitely going to stir some controversy.
And then there’s the other member of this talent team — director/writer David Ayer. He does two key things that propel him into rarified filmmaking territory. First, he does something that I’m just going to make up a name for — sociological excellence. He creates a vivid, fully authentic world of cops and drug dealers. David Simon from The Wire did this really well. Creating such a stunning reality involves a range of skills, from recruiting actors that are really good, for instance, at cursing and acting tough to ensuring that all the different characters inhabit their respective role in ‘the system.’ Anyway, the point here is that Ayer creates a fully believable reality of modern-day, street-level warfare (In this vein, Ayer’s has improved upon perfection from Training Day).
Additionally, some critical technical elements of filmmaking are executed flawlessly. The first component of this is soundtrack. Here, the comparison to Braveheart resonates especially well. Remember the soundtrack to Braveheart? The beautiful, elegant melodies that not only entertained in and of themselves, but also infused the narrative with an emotional intensity that ratcheted up the key beats in the story? Ayer’s brilliantly utilizes music to forward the plot, meta-analytically comment on the action within the scene, and, at other times, fulfill the more traditional role of soundtrack in reinforcing the emotions of the moment. The second component relates to camerawork style. I’m not going to get into a debate about the hand-held approach and whether it’s too shaky. When the talented and recently deceased Tony Scott used handheld it was too shaky. Here it is not. It is used perfectly. Ayer’s somehow manages to blend hand-held angles, with traditional shots, so that the story is presented in a way that feels unblinkingly real (like a documentary), but also is artistic and, ah, visually coherent.
Now for some final (as promised) direct comparisons.
Braveheart is a battlefield story. Much blood is spilled on vast plains that are used to pit one mob against another. It’s powerful. And yet I would argue without hesitation that Brian and Mike’s foot patrol of this 21st century American ghetto serves as a more suspenseful battleground. This is the case for two reasons. One, the situations are scarier. Moving slowly through a creepy house of unknown threat is more viscerally disturbing than watching a crowd of faceless humanity hack at each other. And, two, the movie uses the mythology of the cartel (namely the assumption that this organization is not only capable of but commonly practices sadistic violence of almost incomprehensible proportions). You can imagine how Ayer’s uses this principle to orchestrate some supremely disturbing moments (especially in light of the documentary feel). If Level One on the violence scale is a mugging and Level Four is the bombing of a village than I’d say the violence-ideas perpetuated by End of Watch are at least at Level Three.
This is not a movie for your 8 year-old kid.
Another comparison: Braveheart was the story of a legend, a figure that rose to greatness. Braveheart subscribed to the ‘great man’ theory of history, that major historical events and trends were, in fact, swayed and shaped by individuals. This is an outdated, tired theory much like trickledown economics. Yes, William Wallace had almost superhuman abilities and he did death defying things, all of which made for a memorable and fun case study. But it’s amped-up and Hollywood-ized — at least a little. Did anybody really walk away from Braveheart thinking that one man accomplished all that? In other words, the narrative was hampered by our awareness that Wallace’s actions weren’t entirely realist. In this important way, End of Watch is a more grounded and sophisticated story of great men. Brian and Mike are neither as skilled as superheroes nor treated as such. But they’re great men. We meet them at the beginning of their careers, their ascension to greatness. What’s great about End of Watch is we don’t even realize they’re cut from the same cloth as William Wallace until they end. It’s a much more fascinating study of hero-psychology because it takes place within the minds of more relatable and multi-faceted individuals operating within a more complicated and relevant environment.
End of Watch — see it…it’s better than Braveheart.