While Hollywood may pour on the sugar-coated fluff and escapism when it comes to the lion’s share of its movies, when those cameras moved across town to film the seedy and depraved underbelly of LA for the murky cop thriller, Street Kings, they went to opposite extremes. Director David Ayer, who penned the similar cops gone wild Training Day in which Denzel Washington detonated the screen as a good police officer turned exceedingly bad, assembles here a rogues gallery of such deplorable LAPD anti-heroes, that it’s hard to tell which one is the worst as they seem to compete for that title.
Street Kings is based on a story by bestseller crime writer James Ellroy (Black Dahlia, White Jazz, LA Confidential), a brooding cynic who experienced his mother’s gruesome, unsolved murder when he was ten years old, and the LA based scribe has been attempting to overcome that childhood trauma through his noirish violent fiction ever since. Keanu Reeves is Tom Ludlow in Street Kings, an alcoholic Vice Squad cop whose police methods amount to outright brutality and legal assassinations that have long been covertly approved and elaborately covered up by his boss, the suave and cunning Captain Jack Wander (Forest Whitaker).
But when Ludlow’s former partner is targeted for investigation by Internal Affairs and seeks to worm his way out of it by snitching on Ludlow’s blatant improprieties, he starts stalking the turncoat. And while doing so, inadvertently walks into a Koreatown grocery store robbery shootout in which Ludlow is implicated in his ex-partner’s murder there. So when the Internal Affairs heat is turned on him, Ludlow plays the artful dodger with a little help from the captain, at the same time as he roams through the shark infested waters of inner city LA, on the hunt for the dead man’s killers and in a bid for his own exoneration.
But while prowling around all over town for the bad guys, the vodka-swilling Ludlow becomes increasingly less distinguishable from the targeted perpetrators, as he performs summary executions, impales and tortures a suspect on a barbed wire fence, severs a head in two with a well aimed shovel, and beats brains in with a telephone book and then drinks their beer from the fridge. And whenever the one man good squad sustains any related bruises, he stops off at the local hospital for some personal attention from sexy Nurse Garcia (Martha Higareda), who has a habit of applying bandages like it’s professional foreplay between the two lovebirds.
Street Kings is plagued most of all by terrible miscasting. Keanu, a self-described pacifist and on the sensitive, gentle side, is no Denzel Washington, and his label here as a similar out of control psycho-cop is hard to swallow. And Forest Whitaker, for his part, struggles with seeming confusion to get into overly grandiose character as if he wandered in from either There Will be Blood imitating Daniel Day Lewis’ maniacal oil baron, or a Shakespeare production, all while cultivating some sort of bad New York City accent.
Maybe Street Kings worked better on the page. And there certainly seem to be intriguing symbolic comparisons drawn here by former military man turned director Ayer, between a culture steeped in violence and the damaging psychological effects of trained killing, whether on the streets of LA or in war. But the unique genre shift this represents of a conventional police department bad apple or two, to a whole dysfunctional family tree, leaves Street Kings without any sense of dramatic balance, and drowning in its own overwhelming pessimism about the human race.
Fox Searchlight Pictures