Film review by: Witney Seibold
The hero of David Ayer’s film “Street Kings” is an alcoholic, an unhidden racist, and regularly practices vigilante justice, operating less on evidence, and more on his own chemically-hindered intuition. Ayer also wrote the screenplays for “Training Day,” “Dark Blue,” “S.W.A.T.” and his first directorial effort “Harsh Times.” He clearly takes a dim view of police officers in general, and the LAPD in particular, as not a single one of his police protagonists is the least bit honest, clean, or free from sin. In his world, every police office looks out for #1, is not even interested in hiding the fact that they are racist, has no tolerance for the pencil-pushers and red-tape they are subjected to in the office, and most of them are addicted to drink or drugs. If one of these cops dares to show any small streak of slightly glimmering honesty, they are punished, usually by being shot to death out on the street. All these cops eyeball the Internal Affairs officers the same way pot dealers eyeball regular beat cops.
Tom Ludlow, the aforementioned “good guy” of “Street Kings” is played by Keanu Reeves. I did not mis-type. The hard-as-nails borderline-criminal asshole cop of “Street Kings” is played by the king of soft-spoken dude-itude. Reeves does chomp into the role for all he’s worth, and I admire him for giving his all, but it’s difficult to look past the fact that a horrible and immoral man is being played by the same guy who has yet to shake his unfortunate reputation as a surfer dude.
Anyway, Ludlow is still smarting after the death of his cheating wife. He has the same reputation in his local precinct as Bud White did in “L.A. Confidential,” i.e. he’s the pit bull that his superiors like to unleash during particularly tough cases. Ludlow goes way over the top during a bad drug bust, and is consigned to working a desk job by his boss (Forest Whitaker). He is also under suspicion by the Internal Affairs cop (Hugh Laurie) and a peer on the force (Terry Crews). He, like most heroes of Ayer’s films, is having an affair with a Latina (Martha Higareda), which is either meant to diffuse his racism, or perhaps just make sure that the Latino population in represented in an L.A. movie. Also in the film is Jay Mohr as a cop of some kind, Cedric the Entertainer, as a criminal of some kind, and rappers Common and The Game as romanticized gangstas.
When there’s an unprovoked shooting, Ludlow starts to investigate the murder and internal corruption himself, with the help of Chris Evans. No points for guessing who is really behind it all. The villain does, inexplicably, have all the money, drugs, and incriminating evidence plastered up behind one of his walls. I don’t know why someone would keep all of the evidence against him in one place like that, but never mind. The reveal was the important thing in that scene.
“Street Kings,” like all of Ayer’s films to date is aggressively dour, and pointedly hopeless. The material has clearly been cribbed from those gloriously trashy exploitation cop movies from the 1970s, but sadly, the wicked attitude has not. It’s a film that thinks forced pessimism and gritty reality are the same thing. They’re not. Sometimes being gritty just makes for a dirty movie, and having a anti-hero who pauses during his tooth-brushing to vomit in the toilet is just going to be unpleasant.
“Street Kings” came very close to being campy (over-the-top violence, the miscasting of Keanu Reeves, the inclusion of much big-name talent), but didn’t push quite far enough to be entertaining. It’s a perfectly disappointing mediocre cop flick with a good pedigree.