Directed by David Ayer. Starring Keanu Reeves, Forest Whitaker, Hugh Laurie, Chris Evans, Martha Higareda, Terry Crews, Jay Mohr, Cedric the Entertainer, the Game, Naomie Harris. (2008, R, 109 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 18, 2008
Dirty cops are the kings of the L.A. streets, and no one knows that better than James Ellroy, the crime novelist who wrote the story on which this film's screenplay is based and for which he receives credit with Kurt Wimmer and Jamie Moss. It's a tangled, gritty story full of gunfire, blood, and vicious men (both on the side of the law and against it), and, for the most part, it's an absorbing policier. Curiously, the often affectless Reeves is well-cast as Tom Ludlow, a vice detective whose placid exterior cloaks a volatile temper that his captain (Whitaker) puts to good use whenever he needs a mad dog to take care of business using methods best kept under cover from the public eye. Like Dirty Harry, Ludlow functions better without things like Miranda laws and probable cause getting in his way, but he also does the kind of thankless tasks that makes him indispensable to his higher-ups who are willing to dispense with questions if Ludlow brings their messes to tidy conclusions. All that matters is what the situation looks like, how it's written up by the presiding officers: That's this movie's recurring refrain. Although the twisty details of Street Kings' story are the most involving aspect of the movie, director Ayer (best known as the Training Day scriptwriter) brings a tactile feel to the urban grit he portrays. Some of his imagery is rather worn, however, as can be seen in the film's opening sequence which introduces us to Ludlow, whose first order of business upon waking up in the morning is to throw up, next clean his gun, and then buy three airplane-sized bottles of vodka on his way to a sting. Also, Ayer seems unable to begin any new sequence without opening with an aerial shot of whatever building in which the action is taking place. Reeves, Whitaker, and Evans deliver terrific performances, as do many of the others, yet Whitaker is allowed to vamp for too long in a closing soliloquy. He's more a tragic Shakespearean king here than streetwise royalty. Despite its limitations, however, Street Kings is a solid contemporary crime drama.