A film review by Craig J. Koban

STREET KINGS j
½ 

2008, R, 108 mins.

Tom Ludlow: Keanu Reeves / Jack Wander: Forest Whitaker / James Biggs: Hugh Laurie / Paul Diskrant: Chris Evans / Scribble: Cedric the Entertainer

Directed by David Ayer / Written by James Ellroy, Kurt Wimmer and Jamie Moss /  Based on a story by Ellroy

You know a film is in trouble when it has Keanu Reeves throwing out racial slurs within its first few minutes. 

There is moment just like that in the new “police officers are morally corrupt and there’s nothing we can do about it” cop 'n gangsta thriller, STREET KINGS.  Reeves plays an racist, alcoholic cop with a penchant for disturbingly unethical behavior behind the badge.  He’s dirty…damn dirty, but not in the usual ways.  He gets up in the morning, looks in the mirror with self-pity, vomits, gets dressed, hops in his sports car, heads to the liquor store to guzzle down some bottles of vodka for breakfast, and then proceeds to insult some Korean hoods.  First, he insults them by indirectly labeling them as Japanese, and then he really hits them where it hurts when he tells one, “You dress white, talk black, and dress Jew.” 

Dirty, I tells ya. 

I think you can either humorously appreciate the entertainingly stoic and reliably wooden Reeves...or you don’t.  I for one have fallen victim to his cool and monosyllabic line delivery, which is often benefited by him playing larger than life personas wrapped up in fantastical storylines (see THE MATRIX TRILOGY and CONSTANTINE, for instance).  But, help me God, I sure had a really difficult time investing in his performance as the xenophobic, inebriated, rule bending, and all around anti-hero cop in STREET KINGS.  It’s especially all the more difficult when you have to hear him utter line after line that seems to breed unintentional laughter, such as one instance when he recalls his time with a former black partner, which becomes the unmitigated howler of all howlers: “We were black and white in black and white back when it all meant something.” 

Ouch. 

Okay, so Keanu himself is not really plausible as this diabolical rogue cop, but the rest of the film that surrounds him is soaked up in pretentious and sappy melodrama, which is made all the more surprising and ultimately disappointing considering the talent on board.  We have director and co-writer David Ayer (who wrote the brilliant TRAINING DAY as well as FAST AND THE FURIOUS, U-571, and HARSH TIMES) and, shockingly enough, the great James Ellroy, the masterful crime writer that has bestowed upon us such memorable, tough as nails Southland tales like LA CONFIDENTIAL, WHITE JAZZ, and THE BLACK DAHLIA.  Ellory is given a story credit as well as a co-screenwriter credit, but it seems here that what we have is a bastardization of TRAINING DAY and LA CONFIDENTIAL into some sort of woefully pedestrian and oftentimes preposterously inane crime flick.   

Ellroy and Ayer have worked well before (just look at the little seen DARK BLUE), but here STREET KINGS goes out of its way to preach lessons we have heard countless times before in the movies (corruption and corrupt cops = bad) and wraps it within a narrative that tries to be a compelling and shocking expose of the nihilism and cynicism of modern American inner city life.  Sure, STREET KINGS is vile, crude, lewd, violent, ugly and seedy at its core, but its underlining script is so obviously recycled and routine:  It’s almost as if the writers went on a $1000 shopping spree at the local Cop Thriller Cliché Store.  The film is predictable, clumsily plotted, and builds to an involuntarily hilarious conclusion when the bad guy comes out, reveals his “how I became bad and why it’s working for me” philosophy of corruption, and at this point we are supposed to be surprised at how this character could become involved in everything…which in itself is chuckle inducing because everything else in the film points to him being the soul corrupting influence.  When a film tries to build momentum to a third act that you can see from a mile away, and then what’s the point? 

It goes down like this:  Tom Ludlow (Reeves) is…as stated…a dirty cop…dirty, I tells ya.  Okay, he’s not on the take, but he’s more of a Judge Dredd figure who’s a one-man judge, jury, and executioner…literally.  This is a guy that clearly watched and worshipped Dirty Harry as a kid and learned through him to willfully break any law whatsoever in order to enact his revenge on the punks of society.  Tom has an ace in the hole in the form of his boss, Jack Wadner (Forest Whitaker) who manages to have the pull to get him out of the legal repercussions of his actions. 

Just when it looks like Tom can live a life of booze, pitiful apathy, and constant mourn over his dead wife, he finds himself under investigation by Internal Affairs’ Captain Biggs (Hugh Laurie, from TV’s HOUSE, sounding a hellova lot like his television doctor, but still very very decent, albeit very underused).  Things snowball even further when he has a chance encounter with his former partner on the beat, Washington (Terry Crews), who appears to have snitched to IA about Tom’s questionable vigilante-esque tactics.  The two have one of those obligatory standoffs early in the film where they confront one another and call each other all sorts of nasty names.  Things get really bad during one day in a convenience store when Tom follows his ex-partner in (to give him a mid-afternoon beating for rattin’ him out) only to find him being viciously blown to bits in an apparent robbery.  Tom is shaken up, but his boss tells him to let everything go and forget about any investigation.  Of course, he can’t, and he reluctantly teams up with a homicide detective (Chris Evans) on a mission of personal redemption to get to the bottom of Washington’s murder and to discover the heart of all of this deplorable police corruption that he has been a part of for too long.  Any viewer with a head on their shoulder should be able to put the pieces together long before he does. 

STREET KINGS tries to trudge through some decidedly touchy areas.  Like LA CONFIDENTIAL and TRAINING DAY, the film does attain a level of respectable toxicity with showing LA as an environment of moral ambiguity and uncertainty, not to mention the fact that it maintains a vibe of appropriate despair and desolation throughout.  Ayer is also more than competent with orchestrating some decent moments of shocking brutality and violence.  Yet, STREET KINGS emerges as a hollow and callous experience for the way it cops out (no pun intended) and is almost hypocritical.  Ayer and Ellroy seem to go out of their way to craft a story with a philosophical heartbeat and social conscious, but the film seems so thrilled and intoxicated by the bloodshed and gore that it sort of glorifies the unpardonable actions and events that it wants to simultaneously condemn and chastise.  The film also sets up Reeves’ character as a wickedly prejudiced officer and then backpedals, never to really deal with this aspect of the character much as the film progresses.   

This of course makes Reeves’ performance all the more puzzling, if not unconvincing at its core.  I am not sure if he thinks he should be playing a hard-edged anti-hero with a heart of gold or a bigoted loser with no redeeming qualities or a corrupt cop that learns the price of corruption…and so forth.  He knows how to mug the camera with his emotionless facial expressions and to utter his lines with a low range and soft-spoken timbre.  He also handles the action scenes with gusto and efficiency, but he’s never once credible as the character.  Some of the smaller characters around him, like the supportive love interest role, are underwritten to the point of being afterthoughts.   

Recent Oscar winner Forrest Whitaker does not fare much better either, as he gives us a textbook effort in sweaty, fist clenched, potty mouthed, salivating, and scenery chewing overacting that sort of stands up and shouts “I can go toe-to-toe with evil and win!”  Actually…he does utter a line disarmingly similar to that at one point.  Hugh Laurie perhaps gives the most effectively low key performance in the film as the IA inspector that seems smarter than just about every other character in the film.  He is able to give credence to scenes and dialogue exchanges that, in worse hands, could have reveled in parody. 

The action and spectacle in STREET KINGS is nasty, but the cliché-ridden and prosaic script, the dull performances, and the themes – hammered over our heads with the subtlety of a flying mallet – make the film even nastier.  The plot is sketchy and builds to a ludicrous climax and the underlining intrigue that could have been generated by the film’s take on police corruption is overtaken by the film’s hero-worshipping of the lifestyle it wants to demonize.  And speaking of hero-worshiping, there is something unsavory for the way the film earnestly tries to portray Tom as a hero that tries to do the right thing when he makes deliberate attempts throughout the film to show how illegitimate, dishonest, and fraudulent he actually is with his choices to bring criminals to justice.  Then again, we are meant to believe Keanu as a frequently intoxicated, world-weary, emotionally confused and conflicted, law breaking, avenging-cop-angel.  Instead of being plausibly gnarly and battle hardened, Reeves feebly appears more like a Zen Buddhist trying to play rough and tough.   

Sorry, but Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood he ain’t.  Perhaps Jason Statham wasn't available.

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