Street Kings

Triple 9

I like to remain open-minded about my film experiences, and sometimes I take a more cerebral approach to my cinematic choices by occasionally venturing beyond my comfort zone. But when all else fails, stick with what you know. When I saw the trailer for Triple 9, I knew this was my type of movie. Reminiscent of movies such as Training Day and Street Kings, Triple 9 promised a gritty look into the seedy world of corrupt law enforcement and the criminals to whom they are indebted. Featuring a talented cast including the likes of Chiwetel Ejiofor (Secret in Their Eyes, The Martian) and Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs), my curiosity was sufficiently piqued. It looked like the type of movie to fly under the radar, and sure enough my theater was sparsely populated.

I often say that movies are won and lost in their opening and closing sequences, and Triple 9 started with a literal bang and never let up. It begins in the back of a van, without about six men gearing up for what appears to be some type of tactical mission. Are they cops? A swat team? Bank robbers, or all of the above? They expertly execute a bank heist with precision, targeting only a singular safe deposit box. As they flee the scene of the crime and peel off their masks, we see that most of them are actually cops. They are lead by Michael Atwood (Ejiofor), ex-military private security, police officers Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie, The Night Before), Franco Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr., Transcendence), ex-cop Gabe Welch (Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad) and his brother Russell (Norman Reedus, The Walking Dead). The crooked bunch are working at the behest of the Russian mob, controlled by a very sinister Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs) as Irina Visalov, wife of an incarcerated Russian mobster.

Irina and Atwood’s relationship grows increasingly volatile after she ups the ante and insists they pull off another heist, this time from a Homeland Security facility – a nearly impossible feat. In a cruel stroke of genius, Rodriguez has a plan to divert local law enforcement’s attention while they pull of the job. When an officer goes down in the line of duty, his fellow brothers in blue respond immediately, citywide. Just as 187 is the police code for murder, 999 (triple 9) is the code for officer down, or in distress. If they can pull off a Triple 9, they can square things with Irina and walk away with a big payday. Stuck between the law and the mob, these crooked cops have their work cut out for them, leveraged to the hilt.

I enjoyed this movie for the simple reason that it was entertaining. There were some issues with pacing, as the movie wore on in its final act, but overall I enjoyed it because several scenes were nothing short of an adrenaline rush. The performances were mostly good, with Mackie and Ejiofor particularly bringing a convincing and conflicting emotionality to their roles. Winslet was as I’d never seen her, unnerving and vicious. The script faltered a bit here and there in terms of realism, but I mostly thought it was solid. You could say this was a poor man’s Training Day, and it won’t be remembered, but hey, I liked it! I give it a solid grade of: B

End of Watch

Some filmmakers are known for their keen ability to capture the essence of a particular city, either filtering a landscape through loving eyes or exposing a harsh underbelly as only a native can do.  Spike Lee and Woody Allen have made their careers showcasing New York City, for example.  When I think of L.A. as portrayed in film, Michael Mann comes to mind – most notably for his depiction of the city in Heat and Collateral.  I’ve recently taken note of another filmmaker who has continuously highlighted Los Angeles from both the criminal and law enforcement perspectives, with that line frequently blurred.   Writer/director David Ayer has lent a hand to a few gritty movies set in L.A., including the critically acclaimed Training Day.  He also featured police corruption in Street Kings, an atmospheric tale set amongst a group of dirty Los Angeles cops.  He sticks with familiar territory in his latest effort, End of Watch – with mostly good results.

End of Watch doesn’t aim for much, but what it lacks in originality it compensates for in performance.  The “buddy cop” genre is well worn, but End of Watch takes it a step further by showing a deep and meaningful friendship between two young patrol officers.  Jake Gyllenhaal (Love and Other Drugs) and Michael Pena (Tower Heights) star as Officers Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala, respectively.  On the rough and tumble streets of L.A., they reign supreme.  They don’t exactly do things by the book, but for the most part they act honorably and take their jobs seriously.  Whereas most officers never have occasion to pull their guns in the line of duty (a fact smartly mentioned by Brian as narrator), Brian and Mike flash their iron quite often, seeing more action in a week than the average cop sees in a year.  The movie showed the danger they faced, but also the camaraderie between each other and the rest of the department.  This jovial, fraternal atmosphere has been done a thousand times before, but as long as it’s well executed; I don’t mind a familiar theme.

Ayer is clearly on familiar ground, and I was reminded of Training Day by some of the aspects of the storyline, as well as the cinematography.  Brian and Mike don’t just call it quits after they punch out; they are intertwined in each other’s lives, almost like brothers.  They are commended for their bravery in the line of duty and establish a reputation as fearless officers of the law.  That fearlessness could be construed as foolishness when routine surveillance leads to a huge drug bust one day.  The bust results in seizure of contraband belonging to a Mexican drug cartel, and they don’t take kindly to having their goods intercepted.  Eventually Brian and Mike find out that a hit has been put out on them.  They are undeterred, refusing to take added precautions when on patrol.  After a while things come to a head with the cartel, and the bond between the pair is tested.

I enjoyed End of Watch because of Gyllenhaal and Pena.  They had a natural chemistry and were believable as best friends and partners.  The movie had a good flow and pace, and I felt like a fly on the wall of their lives from the outset.  This was probably because Gyllenhaal’s character was filming a documentary that allowed him to narrate and explain what was happening as it unfolded, a neat trick that drew the viewer into the story.  End of Watch is not without criticism though, and I have to give a tepid endorsement of the movie, based on its ending.  I still think that a movie can be won or lost in the last ten minutes; and the ending didn’t work for me here.  I didn’t like what happened from a narrative point of view, nor did I like an utterly pointless last-minute flashback that served no expository purpose.  Bad endings just leave me flat and disappointed, no matter how effectively a movie started out.  This review isn’t exactly hot-off-the-press, so by now there are other movies I’d see ahead of this one.  All in all, not a bad flick though.  Grade: B.