If you make it through the first 20 minutes of “Street Kings” and still don’t know who the bad guys will end up being and how everything will end, I can only offer: a) my condolences, because obviously not all your dogs are barking, or: b) my jealousy, because you’ve apparently endured far fewer lousy cop movies than I have.
Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves) of the LAPD is a Cop On The Edge. He drinks on the job and embarks on dangerous one-man raids to help numb the pain of his wife’s death. He’s like Martin Riggs, minus the wicked mullet and Three Stooges impersonations.
Ludlow’s also dirty, as shown by the opening scene where he plants guns and evidence to strengthen his shooting of a bunch of Koreans who were keeping two young girls in sexual captivity. Some of his fellow cops frown on this maverick behavior, but Ludlow’s comrades in the Vice Special unit understand that a little brutality goes a long way. None more so than his boss, Captain Wander (Forest Whitaker), who views Ludlow as a vital component of his rise to eventual Chief-dom. Representing the other side of the issue is Biggs (Hugh Laurie), an Internal Affairs captain with a keen interest in ending the unit’s shenanigans. So dogged is he in pursuit of Wander and company he’s enlisted Ludlow’s ex-partner Washington (Terry Crews) to dish the dirt on their time together. This angers Ludlow at first, but when Washington is gunned down in an apparent convenience store holdup, he takes it upon himself to go after the killers, leading to some unpleasant revelations.
Two things come to mind as you watch the first act of “Street Kings.” The first is how fresh and exciting the movie would’ve been if it was released in 1984, the second is the question, “James Ellroy wrote that?” Maybe this is what happens when you don’t have Brian Helgeland co-scripting and you swap out Curtis Hanson for David Ayer (who is in absolutely no danger of pigeonholing himself after previously writing “Training Day” and directing “Harsh Times”). “Street Kings” feels like “Lethal Weapon” mashed up with “The Shield,” only without the former’s goofy ‘80s vibe or the latter’s relative authenticity. We’re even treated to numerous shots of Los Angeles’ city hall, a foot chase, and that old standby, the police funeral. All that was missing is Ludlow saying he’s “getting too old for this s**t.”
The decision to cast Reeves doesn’t help, of course. His acting strengths, if they can be described as such, only come through when a character he plays is perplexed or incredulous, not resolute or filled with murderous rage as Ludlow often is. Within the framework of a stronger story, his natural obliviousness might have been overlooked, but here, and amidst talents like Whitaker and Laurie, Reeves’ shortcomings are all the more apparent.
The logic behind releasing “Street Kings” at this particular point in time is a little fuzzy to me. Sure, the 44-year old Reeves is nearing the end of his shelf life as an action hero, and police movies aren’t going out of style any time soon, but when the bar has been set as high as it has in recent years by the likes of “The Wire” and the aforementioned “Training Day,” wasting money and studio resources on a clichéd rehash like this is puzzling, to say the least.