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Some of us think of cops as heros, their lives on the line every day, etc., etc. But the hero of what is likely to be considered the most realistic movie of the year, if not one of the best from a pure thriller-suspense angle, is writer-producer-director David Ayer ("Street Kings"). This film could not have been as tense and exciting as it is were it not for its immediately engaging characters, galvanizing plot and crisp, compressed lingo unique to a police universe.

It should be mentioned that some of my facts about the film and its production decisions derive from the Q&A after the screening, with Ayer and Pena and one of the producers -- like the one about Jake Gyllenhaal ("Source Code") and Michael Pena ("Tower Heist") brought in for rehearsal five MONTHS! in advance of shooting to learn digest and own the words. Which is pretty unheard of for anything less than a major studio tentpole project.

What Ayer gives us are ride-alongs with LAPD officers Taylor (Gyllenhaal) and Zavala (Pena) as they patrol South Central, Los Angeles, the mean streets gang culture, the drug trade and unpredictable violence. So, after writing one of the most intense scripts on cops not based on one of Joseph Wambaugh's novels, he had to get the right actors to handle the staccato rythm of his words but also convey the accuracy of cop-talk with all the banter, opinions, mood-shifts and nerve-ending pump-ups before and assault that partners who ride the same unit day after dangerous day engage in.

More than with most films, technique plays a major role in Ayers third directorial project. Consistent with allowing (and paying for) time for the actors to get lines down as a means to create the illusion of raw, honest, spontaneity, Ayer pins small high-res digital cameras to the cop partners that are employed to film singles of each other while driving and/or chasing. This helps to take the ad lib quality about as far as make-believe allows.

Ayer even has Gyllenhall provide a product review of the cameras in dialogue to substantiate them as standard police wear to document confrontations, pinned to shirt or jacket. Even though Ayers and others refer to a "found footage" technique, it's more a hand-held device for controlled scene coverage in tight spaces. This makes his actors camera operators and collaborators with cinematographer Roman Vasyanov.

With a huge amount of raw film from all his cameras (surveillance, dish cams, etc.) and many takes, Ayer, who has written some mighty action dramas ("Training Day," "The Fast and the Furious") had an editing spree with editor Dody Dorn. Or, a nightmare if you look at it from the aspect of sheer volume.

The film is virtually non-stop episodic, which may be an argument against realism. It throws a head lock on that claim in asserting that one unit would encounter so much diverse drama every time they left the station. Except that it's a movie, so how else would you do it? I don't know. Not sure it should be done any differently and what we get with these guys is just plain fun so forget I said anything.

Two cops facing strangers in bad neighborhoods comes with tension and drama built in. But, when Taylor and Zavala confiscate money and weapons from cartel guys, interrupting the flow of money and drugs, two local cops are pests to be removed. Under a contract for their lives, the needle on the suspense dial goes up and stays there.

We can expect some Oscar nominations for the brilliance of these two guys and a strong supporting cast that can brag Anna Kendrick as the girl who just might make a married man out of bachelor officer Taylor and America Ferrera who's never shown such high-spirtied moxie before (that I've seen).

Someone referred to Pena as one of the great underestimated actors in Hollywood, and I would have had reservations about that before this performance. He is second to none here as half of what the film's impressions are built on. As representative of a culture, his realization of the hispanic cop in L.A. is flawless and bound to bring him accolades.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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