If you’re not hip to what’s going to happen in Street Kings
’ final minutes by, let’s say, 15 minutes into the movie, then either you’ve missed out on every other dirty cop movie ever made or you’re so caught up in how well Keanu Reeves
pulls off his role as a tough-as-nails, take no prisoners (literally) officer you’re not actually paying attention to the story. Things are telegraphed so far in advance in Street Kings
that the words ‘suspense’ and ‘thriller’ should be banned from use in describing this latest gritty drama from David Ayer (Harsh Times
Director Ayer has a real eye for capturing LA’s less glamorous streets, and with a story and screenplay by James Ellroy, another storyteller who knows his way around the turf, Street Kings
has the makings of a classic cop drama. But somewhere along the line the dialogue and story took a turn down a dark alley lined with film clichés and Hollywood melodrama and didn’t emerge unscathed.
LA Vice Detective Tom Ludlow (Reeves) knows how to bring down the bad guys. His ‘shoot first, don’t ask questions later’ style may be a public relation person’s worst nightmare, but no one can deny it’s effective in cleaning up the streets. Along with a batch of like-minded officers, and under the direction of Captain Wander (Forest Whitaker), Ludlow and his unit act above the law, which makes them the target of internal investigations. Even Ludlow’s old partner Terrence Washington (Terry Crews) believes the group is out of control, and he’s willing to spill the beans to Internal Affairs Captain Biggs (Hugh Laurie).
Hugh Laurie and Forest Whitaker square off in Street Kings.© 20th Century Fox
Believing Washington is giving up info he’d rather have kept a secret, Ludlow follows his ex-partner to a convenience store. And it’s there, with Ludlow beside him, that Washington draws his last breath. Gunned down by two men in masks, Ludlow is quickly placed front and center as a possible suspect. But Wander and his team manage to arrange things to protect their comrade. Basically cleared from having any involvement in Washington’s death, Ludlow becomes obsessed with uncovering what actually happened and, no matter where the clues lead him, he refuses to back off.
As Ludlow, Reeves is a seething mass of pent-up emotion and he delivers a performance that’s edgy and solid. Chris Evans, who plays the detective in charge of investigating Washington’s murder, looks a little young and naïve to be handling the job, but since his character’s supposed to be a little wet behind the ears, his youthful looks sort of fit the part. Jay Mohr, Amaury Nolasco, and John Corbett – an interesting mix of actors – do a great job of taking on the roles of Reeves’ closest cohorts. It actually took me a while to figure out the goateed guy was Corbett. And Mohr, surprisingly enough, isn’t the comic relief. His character never cracks wise, and so while the casting choice is an unusual one, it's one that works.
Hugh Laurie’s first scene in the film is in a hospital and if you don’t immediately wonder how Dr. House wandered onto the Street Kings
set, it’s because you’re not a fan of the hit TV series on Fox. It’s a disservice to Laurie to introduce him in a hospital scene because for the rest of the movie it’s hard to shake his connection with his angry, opinionated doctor character on House
as he's trying to play this reasonable, straight-talking Internal Affairs captain. Oscar-winner Whitaker chews through a batch of scenery in his over-the-top take on a manipulative, powerful cop. Astonishingly, Whitaker’s performance is the weak link in the otherwise impressive ensemble.
The Bottom Line
After an interesting setup, Street Kings resorts to the typical movie convention of leaving a character who should have been killed alive long enough so he can escape (Mike Myers as Austin Powers spoofed this type of setup really well). This sort of totally illogical scene in Street Kings elicits an ‘oh no they didn’t’ snort of derision. People are getting blown away left and right, but the one guy who should have been long dead remains alive. Oh yeah, that’s totally believable. Another central character is left tied up in a small space and could be there to this day, for all we know. But don’t blame all the screenwriting flaws on Ellroy; he shares writing credits with Kurt Wimmer (Ultraviolet, Equilibrium) and Jamie Moss.
Keanu Reeves in Street Kings.© 20th Century Fox
Despite the paint by numbers plot, Street Kings
is actually a semi-decent, albeit totally unbelievable, film. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for Reeves when he gets things right. It’s strange that, even with its flaws, I found Street Kings
entertaining. It’s fast-paced, the action’s top-notch, and some of the characters are kind of intriguing. If you completely ignore the fact it’s ludicrous and the twists are spelled out hours in advance, then it’s not a total waste of time. But you have to be in the right mood to sit through it and you definitely have to set aside any desire you may have to analyze the plot.
GRADE: B- / C+
Street Kings was directed by David Ayer and is rated R for strong violence and pervasive language.
Theatrical Release Date: April 11, 2008