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Street Kings (2008) Print E-mail
Friday, 11 April 2008
“Why can’t you have a normal life like everyone else?” she demands, repeating the frustrated question every woman in love with a True Hero confronts him with, out loud or in her thoughts. Since we are to regard LAPD detective Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves) as a True Hero, he’s asked this by his nurse girlfriend Grace (Martha Higareda). And like all True Heroes, Ludlow is too granite-jawed, too single-minded to offer an explanation. Hey, it’s just the way he is, you know.

“Street Kings” is a tough, energetic and entertaining Cop Movie that’s hampered by a kind of dark, reflexive sour cynicism nastier than anything this side of a Richard Condon novels—but his (such as “The Manchurian Candidate”) were often amusing in their view of a world rife with corruption. Here, it’s deadly serious. Clearly, we’re to regard Tom Ludlow as the latest incarnation of Dirty Harry Callahan or that other tough San Francisco cop, Bullitt (as played by Steve McQueen). A cop who Throws Away the Rule Book, who’s so determined to lock up the bad guys—or, seemingly more often, to shoot them dead. (He even shoots a handcuffed, unarmed captive, and we’re supposed to applaud his actions.)

Another problem is that this is partly written by James Ellroy, whom many—but not me—regard as a great crime novelist. My complaint with Ellroy is that his characters are one-dimensional, and so is his dialogue, usually bogus tough-guy talk of a kind nobody ever really says. Perhaps fortunately, the screenplay was also worked on by Kurt Wimmer and Jamie Moss; maybe they should be credited for bringing much of the supposedly-sizzling dialogue back to Earth. It pops up sometimes (“always, Captain Wander, always!”), but fortunately not too often. I suspect the home aquarium bit is from Ellroy, it smacks of his opportunistic plotting/characterization: the two guys with the aquarium are so goddamned tough that they have a three-foot shark in their tank, but they’re also so goddamned MEAN that the shark is dead.

“Street Kings” (bad title) opens with a familiar scene: an alarm clock rouses a weary man, who tends to his gun, then heads for work at sundown. He’s part of a squad headed by his long-time boss and friend Capt. Jack Wander (Forest Whitaker). It’s not clear what the squad’s main duty is, but that’s okay, since Ludlow is often working more or less on his own, as in the opening confrontation with some really mean Korean-American bad guys. (The sound effects of Ludlow being beaten are wildly overdone.)

He’s acclaimed as a hero by everyone except sardonic internal affairs investigator Capt. James Biggs (Hugh Laurie), who’s evidently set on exposing Ludlow as a crooked cop. But we know he isn’t. When he learns his former partner Washington (Terry Crews) has met with Biggs, evidently to spill the beans on Ludlow, Phonebook Tom confronts Washington in a convenience store—just as two masked guys with big guns burst in and blow Washington into hamburger. (There’s something here about a third gun that’s briefly a major plot point, then forgotten.)
At Washington’s funeral, he can’t make peace with Linda (Naomie Harris), the dead man’s widow. At work, Wander’s forced to temporarily put Ludlow back into uniform, taking civilian complaints. (Another apparent setup that leads nowhere.) But he’s now furiously determined to find Washington’s killers, partly because some of the evidence seems to point at him. He forms an uneasy partnership with Paul Diskant (Chris Evans), the cop investigating Washington’s murder, and the story takes off from there.

With Diskant and alone, Ludlow angrily criss-crosses Los Angeles, mostly at night, doing his best to track down various leads, to locate the two guys who seem to have been the killers. There are plot surprises galore, but the biggest one won’t surprise many who are familiar with cop movie plots.

The movie is often all too obvious. When Ludlow leaves his houwse, we see he has an American flag prominently displayed; later, there’s also a flag on the wall of some very bad guys, which is, I guess, a kind of clue. Once or twice, Ludlow is called “Phonebook Tom,” and of course, we eventually see how he got the handle—but this scene is evidently in there only to show why he got the name. It’s like the use of the term “exigent circumstances” when Ludlow’s being quizzed by a board after he’s shot the hell out of a bunch of Korean bad guys. It’s planted only so its use later will kind of pop out at us. In an early scene, after everyone’s left, the camera lingers momentarily on a billboard asking help to locate kidnapped twins; it’s there so we will know who the kids are when we see them again. But why? The sequence in which they appear in flesh is clear and unambiguous; why did director David Ayer think he needed to underscore the idea they were kidnapped? The movie has lots of potholes like this; they’ll trip up the particularly attentive, but never be noticed by most.

Ludlow is at times impossibly tough, impossibly good at everything. He escapes from captivity several times, usually leaving his captors dead. But Reeves makes us believe most of this, because HE so clearly believes it.

The cast is mostly excellent, particularly Reeves—very reliable in this kind of role—and Hugh Laurie, a great actor in any mode, on leave from “House” and still doing a perfect American accent. Forest Whitaker chews the scenery in almost every scene he’s in, the only times I’ve seen this careful, intelligent actor overdo things. The gorgeous Naomie Harris has a few good scenes, as does Jay Mohr, one of Wander’s squad. It’s rare for the agile comic actor to play a straight role, but he’s fine here. Cedric the Entertainer is amusing as a lowlife called Scribble (why that name?), who cruises the streets of south central L.A. in a big orange Cadillac convertible. I guess he didn’t want to be conspicuous. The rest of the cast is fine; most have a scene or two in which to shine, and they make the most of it.

In terms of production, the movie is almost self-consciously gritty and street-real; Gabriel Beristain’s low-key photography—even daylight looks dim—is deliberately slightly muddy, to make all this seem real. But then one of Ellroy’s mock-tough lines comes along, or a bad guy explains everything when he doesn’t have to, and we’re taken out of the movie again. Still, Los Angeles locations, many of them unfamiliar even to long-time residents, are very well used; there’s a strong sense of locale and environment.

The movie is brutally energetic, or maybe energetically brutal; there are fights, foot chases, car action (though no chases), lots of guns going off, blowing out windows, TV screens and bodies. But Ayer, who also directed "Harsh Times" and wrote "Training Day," a movie with some of the virtues and faults of “Street Kings,” doesn’t over-emphasize everything. We see a bit, and we’re gone, mostly swept along in the fast-paced, complicated plot. I think the movie would work a bit better if it didn’t end with a direct lift from an earlier tough-cop movie.

Also, the cynicism seems artificial; as Ludlow moves forcefully from one plot twist to another, the extent of the corruption he uncovers (or which is outlined to him in dialogue) becomes wider and wider, until it seems that Ludlow is quite literally the last honest man in Los Angeles. Which makes him seem impossibly, rather than admirably, naïve. Surely the filmmakers don’t want us to leave the theater thinking their tough-cop hero is a clueless jerk? It’s not only possible to think that way, but hard not to. Still, the movie is unquestionably entertaining, with colorful actors, lots of action, and a nicely grimy view of the mean streets of Los Angeles.

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