Michael Pe

Jake Gyllenhaal stars in David Ayer’s “End of Watch" (Photo Courtesy of Open Road Films).

There is a phrase often used by script analysts called the “white moment.” It is the crest of the dramatic arc, that brief moment where everything appears to be going well for our hero before a dramatic reversal of fortune. Cop dramas are rife with moments such as this, and cliche dictates that the senior officer two days from retirement must inevitably meet his demise.

The white moment is especially relevant to “End of Watch,” a film whose heroes, Officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña), spend its entire runtime unconsciously competing to see who will have their white moment first. It’s an unintentionally entertaining element, but also one that adds notable unpredictability to a film that is equally gripping and utterly ineffectual.

Taylor and Zavala are cocky street cops in a notoriously dangerous precinct of Los Angeles. They’re distinct for their unorthodox approach to things: Zavala has an off-the-books brawl with an African-American suspect early in the film, and the pair is all about car chases, gunfights and general shenanigans. This lands them into trouble when they inadvertently hit a string of cartel operations, a move that puts them right in the sights of the cartoonish Big Evil (Maurice Compte).

There are certain elements of “End of Watch” that simply don’t work, and most of them are cosmetic concerns. The film starts off trying to sell itself as a found-footage film, a conceit it abandons in an opening car chase that cuts to angles that no handheld camera could reasonably capture. “End of Watch” continues veering back and forth between found-footage cinematography and a traditionally cinematic style throughout. It also posits itself as a realistic take on the harshness of the streets of LA, but its African-American gangsters are unequivocally good-hearted softies and its Latinos are cartoonish monsters whose dialogue is nothing but a barrage of street profanity.

However, the foundation of the film is the relationship between Taylor and Zavala. Peña and Gyllenhaal are both strong, consistent performers, and their chemistry together is charming. There is an unforced intimacy to the scenes of them cruising the streets, and Gyllenhaal in particular is as relaxed and effective here as he’s been in years. Zavala has a longtime wife, and Peña makes sure every audience member knows how much he loves her. Throughout the course of the film, Taylor meets and marries a young woman played by Anna Kendrick, and Kendrick is a lovely presence, even if her character barely qualifies as anything but Taylor’s motivation to not get killed in the film’s finale.

That finale, by the way, is the film’s most problematic element. Director David Ayer loads “End of Watch” with suspenseful moments, and his handling of the street violence inherent to being an LAPD officer is often visceral and intense. Every time Taylor and Zavala talk about how wonderful their lives are and how they’d take care of each other’s families if one of them was to die, it’s clear that one of them is building to their white moment. “End of Watch’s” finale is a taut and unnerving climax to the story that seems to throw the audience’s expectations back in their face with unexpected savagery.

And then it backs off. Without delving into too much detail, the final scenes of “End of Watch” are a disappointment, an abrupt turn upwards out of a nose dive for our heroes. Sure, blood is spilled, but the gravity and horror you’re feeling one moment completely dissipates in the next, leaving “End of Watch” with a muddled thesis and a denouement that’s utterly purposeless. Nonetheless, “End of Watch” is an often-entertaining cop drama and an interesting exploration of male camaraderie, and a toothless ending is no reason not to watch.

Printed on Monday, September 17, 2012 as: Cop film explores camaraderie

Ben Stiller, left, and Eddie Murphy are shown in a scene from “Tower Heist.” Photo courtesy of Associated Press/Universal Pictures, David Lee.

Brett Ratner’s name often draws scoffs among filmgoers, as the director tends to ping-pong between lukewarm comedies (“The Family Man”) and overwrought thrillers (“After the Sunset”), not to mention single-handedly torpedoing the original “X-Men” trilogy with his third installment. However, Ratner seems to have found his niche with “Tower Heist,” a slick, twisty and genuinely entertaining heist film that’s easily his finest to date.

Taking timely aim at the financial elite, “Tower Heist” stars Ben Stiller, Casey Affleck and Michael Peña as employees at the Tower, a New York skyscraper that houses the richest of the rich, including Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda). When Shaw is arrested and the staff, who have invested their pensions with him, learn their money is gone, building manager Josh Kovacs (Stiller) flies into a blind rage that gets him and his friends fired. Hungry for revenge, they enlist ousted tenant Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick) and local thug Slide (Eddie Murphy) to pull off a high-stakes robbery from Shaw’s penthouse apartment.

Like numerous heist films before it, “Tower Heist” relies strongly on the chemistry of its cast, and the Stiller-led ensemble doesn’t disappoint. Stiller is more likeable here than he’s been in years, and his straight-laced team leader makes for a cheer-worthy hero, especially when he proves to be unexpectedly sharp and capable under extreme duress. Eddie Murphy, freed from the layers of make up and morality that prevailed during many of his recent “contributions” to cinema, veers between energetically charming and confident and occasionally harsh and even a bit scary — definitely Murphy’s best performance since 2006’s “Dreamgirls.” The supporting cast, rounded out by Affleck, an affably defeated Broderick, Peña and “Precious” star Gabourey Sidibe — packing a hilarious Jamaican accent — is grounded thanks to a genuinely touching performance from Stephen McKinley Henderson as Lester, an elderly doorman who loses his life savings to Shaw’s scheme.

Thanks to the vibrant energy among the cast and strong pacing from Ratner, “Tower Heist” moves fairly quickly, spending just enough time establishing characters and the geography of the Tower before putting them to the task of breaking into their former workplace. Murphy barely appears in the film for the first 40 minutes, but his entrance, as he teaches his co-conspirators how to steal, is hugely entertaining. The film doesn’t take too long before leading into its climactic heist, and Ratner finds a way to add some wrinkles to the plot, some expected and some genuinely surprising. However, the final moments trade plot and character for spectacle as the characters find their plan crumbling under them and have to improvise as the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade takes over the streets around them, making for some impressively-shot scenes that leave character development and logic behind.

One need only read the newspaper, with its talk of Occupy Wall Street and other political movements focused on the extreme upper class, to realize just how timely “Tower Heist” is, and the film will give many of those feeling the pressures of the times vicarious relief, if only for two hours. The film manages to bottle up all the resentment and anger of the current economic situation many are facing and convey it into a fun, relatively harmless comedy that brings Eddie Murphy back to being a funny, strong performer. For that, “Tower Heist” is easy to recommend.

Published on November 4, 2011 as: 'Tower Heist' uses cast chemistry to entertain