Tom Ludlow is having a bad day, and he just woke up. Crawling out of bed, he staggers to the bathroom to vomit, knocks back some breakfast vodka, then drives off to meet a pair of gun-running scumbags who beat the living crap out of him after he peppers them with vile insults. So far, so good. Tom returns to his car, pops the trunk, grabs a serious-looking sidearm, tracks the scumbags to their lair, busts in and blows away everybody in sight. Then he slips on some latex gloves and starts planting drugs on the scene. Then we realize — hey, this guy's a cop.
A bad cop in any other movie, probably. But "Street Kings" is set in James Ellroy's Los Angeles, a place where everybody's bad, and corruption is measured only in degrees. This is an unusual place to find Keanu Reeves. Ellroy is the master badass of the American crime novel — Mickey Spillane was a creampuff by comparison. Keanu, with his deadpan introspection and minimalist amiability, seems too humane a presence to survive in Ellroy's unforgiving world. But Reeves' recessive persona works surprisingly well in the role of a hard-boiled but conflicted vice-squad detective. Tom Ludlow may be rotten, but, like Dirty Harry, he has his reasons. (Ludlow's wife died three years ago in distressing circumstances.) And considering the human slime through which he's forced to wade on a daily basis, he can almost pass as a good guy.
Ludlow may not think twice — or once, for that matter — about twisting rules in order to ventilate the murderers and child-rapists who infest the city. But it's his own chief, Captain Wander (Forest Whitaker), who's urging him on. ("You're the tip of the f---in' spear!" Wander bellows, in one of the movie's many spasms of dreadful dialogue. "Who's gonna hold back the animals?") The captain is happy to ensure that any telltale evidence that might incriminate his favorite terminator quickly gets lost. And Tom's fellow detectives — who eventually turn out to be even more despicable than we initially realize — are happy to go along. ("We're police," one of them observes. "It doesn't matter what happens. It's how we write it up.")
The movie isn't exactly pure Ellroy. It was apparently thought necessary to bring in two other writers to help out with the script — one of them is Kurt Wimmer, the guy who both wrote and directed the piffling 2006 sci-fi flick "Ultraviolet." But Ellroy came up with the story on his own somehow, and it's a characteristic labyrinth of deceit and betrayal in which nothing is what it seems, and no one can in any way be trusted.
Complications start piling up like spent cartridges when Ludlow's ex-partner, Washington (Terry Crews), gets greased in a bloody convenience-store shootout. Ludlow, who had no reason to be in the vicinity, yet was found kneeling by the body when the squad cars arrived, is an instant suspect. He's also an object of interest to the snaky Internal Affairs chief, Captain Biggs (Hugh Laurie, doing a minute variation on the laconic doctor he plays on "House"). Is it possible that Washington, who knew all about Ludlow's corner-cutting approach to crime control, had been spilling the beans to Biggs? (Captain Wander bristles at this possibility, and in a confrontation tells Biggs to "wash your mouth out with buckshot.") Or was Washington actually dirty, another rotten cop rubbed out by underworld associates? Who were the shooters? (A pair of especially skuzzy drug dealers seem likely candidates, but then what are they doing dead up in some remote canyon scrubland?) Ludlow's sleazy partners are acting strangely too. Why?
The actors dig into this lurid material with something like glee. Jay Mohr is especially distasteful as one of Ludlow's fellow cops, and rappers Common and the Game put in a brief but memorable appearance as a team of extra-nasty bad guys. Naomie Harris brings a wounded dignity to the role of Washington's angry widow; Chris Evans makes us feel the sad confusion of an idealistic cop being dragged over to the dark side; and Cedric the Entertainer, as a small-time crook getting squeezed by Ludlow, provides some deeply welcome comic relief.
The problem with the picture isn't the actors — although director David Ayer (who wrote "Training Day," but who also wrote "The Fast and the Furious") has somehow managed to compel Forest Whitaker to overact in the most alarming way, especially in his hysterical final scene. The problem isn't the film's violence, either, although some of it is particularly vicious. (Is violence actually a problem anywhere other than in real life?) What drags the film down, and in the end sinks it, is its unimaginatively complete grimness and cynicism. True, this is James Ellroy territory, and Ellroy isn't a hopes-and-dreams kind of guy. But in the 1997 "L.A. Confidential," director Curtis Hanson illuminated the author's cheerless world with behavioral nuance and emotional detail — there was more to the characters than a preordained doom. Ayer is a filmmaker of simpler ambition. He thinks that doom should do the trick.
Read Kurt Loder's new review of "Smart People."
Check out everything we've got on "Street Kings."
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