Street Kings (2008) / Thriller-Action
MPAA Rated: R for strong violence, drug content, sexuality and pervasive language
Running Time: 109 min.
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Forest Whitaker, Chris Evans, Hugh Laurie, John Corbett, Amaury Nolasco, Jay Mohr, Cedric the Entertainer, Terry Crews, Martha Higareda, Naomie Harris, Common
Cameo: Daryl Gates, The Game, David Ayer
Director: David Ayer
Screenplay: James Ellroy, Kurt Wimmer, Jamie Moss
Review published August 31, 2010
A large ensemble cast performing in a major Hollywood release based on acclaimed crime novelist James Ellroy's story and partial script does merit interest after the phenomenal L.A. Confidential. Unfortunately, after comparing the power of the director and cast credits, along with the modern setting, one might choose to temper expectations of another great film work. In fact, much of the problem with Street Kings comes from the fact that the script seems just a tad too sophisticated for a relatively inexperienced director and case of hunky-but-not-terribly-talented actors who make a big time political crime drama feel like it should be a standard cop action flick much of the time. It's a bit of a shame, because one might see this story worked into a script that would make for one of the year's more engrossing crime films when not done with Keanu Reeves (The Lake House, A Scanner Darkly), who labors mightily to play a burnt out tough guy with any credibility, and a supporting cast, save Forest Whitaker (Vantage Point, The Great Debaters), of comedians, rappers and muscle-headed pretty boys. It's hard to make an authentic look at City of Los Angeles police corruption when everyone and everything in it looks so Hollywood.
Reeves stars as Tom Ludlow, a racist alcoholic widower loose cannon detective in the LAPD. He becomes a bit of a hero when he decides to bust a local child slavery ring, mostly going above the law by planting evidence to cover up his murders of the culprits, and one suspects that he's done it before and would do it again to see justice served, even if Internal Affairs is constantly on his ass. He has a beef with an ex-partner-turned-whistle-blower (Crews, Balls of Fury) only to be at the wrong place at the wrong time when that cop gets viciously gunned down by masked thugs in a convenience store where Ludlow accidentally fires a round into him of his own, leaving him as a possible accomplice to a murder that he had the means and motive to commit, even if not the intent.
In the world of Street Kings, everyone is corrupt. The only distinction between a good guy and a bad guy in this film is what that level of corruption is, and how much that corruption governs their ability to ultimately do what's right. But Tom doesn't need to worry too much, as his cronies in his unit, led by the ambitious Jack Wander, all have each other's backs no matter what sticky situation they get into -- so long as they don't disgrace the unit and their ability to influence others. Wander and crew successfully keep Tom in the clear by getting rid of whatever evidence might link him to the grocery store murder, but Tom still has an insatiable yen to find the murderers himself for reasons that aren't adequately laid out.
Bombastic isn't exactly the style that works best when a story reaches this implausible, as the exploration into ethical violations get muted by larger-than-life characterizations and hard-to-swallow story developments. How much of this is Ellroy and how much the other two screenwriters is impossible to determine, but one thing is clear -- this film will be seen by even the most jaded anti-police activist as a fantasy portrayal of the inner workings of the department and urban politics when done on such a grandiose scale. Obviousness in pat character development tells you pretty much all you need to know about who each person is and where they're coming from the very first second you see them. Though there are many twists in the plot you might not always know the outcome of, there are so many "tells" that you'll likely be aware that everyone seemingly has a hidden agenda that's waiting to get out, leading to a lack of genuine surprise once those agendas are revealed.
Street Kings isn't all bad, but it's difficult not to be disappointed by a film that could have been so much better if even an ounce of effort would have gone to giving at least the semblance of credibility. Alas, director Ayer (Harsh Times) isn't one to stick around long showcasing talking heads without having them butt together with tirades and insults, and intricate expository information is mostly excised in favor of lengthy foot chases through the 'hood and shootouts in the hills overlooking the city. Fans of testosterone-charged machismo may be more tolerant, but for most other viewers, Street Kings will feel like an ill fitting case of trying to stuff a burly 250-lb. bodybuilder physique into a sinewy 160-lb. man's well-tailored suit.
©2010 Vince Leo