The name James Ellroy has, over the years, become synonymous with the crime film. From LA Confidential to Dark Blue, even to true crime such as The Black Dahlia, for better or worse, James Ellroy is there. What does that have to do with Street Kings? Well, Ellroy wrote the story the film is based on and also has a screenwriting credit.
Street Kings is a journey into the dark and corrupt world of Vice Detective Tom Ludlow, a man who is not averse to breaking the rules in order to uphold the law, described as the tip of the spear of the squad of which he is a member. This movie takes us into their world, a world that is on the brink of crumbling around them. It is an entertaining if predictable romp that does not rank among the best of the genre, nor among Ellroy's best work. Despite that fact, Street Kings remains an engrossing ride that you will watch through to the end without being bored (and all some of us need is some entertainment).
Detective Ludlow (Keanu Reeves) wakes up, fully dressed, looks at himself long and hard in the bathroom mirror, throws up, and heads out to work. Work for him includes stopping by the liquor store to pick up a few of those little airplane-size bottles of vodka, you know, just so he can get through the day. The opening sequence does not have much bearing on the overall plot, but it does go a long way to revealing just what Ludlow is all about. He will do whatever it takes to get the job done, including baiting the bad guys with racial epithets, shooting first, and planting guns on the suspects. While he does this, knowing that he has to do what needs to be done, his commanding officer, Captain Jack Wander (Forest Whitaker), is there to cover his back, protecting him from Internal Affairs.
With the opening out of the way, the plot begins to heat up. Everything begins to go south for Ludlow when it is learned that his former partner, Terrance Washington (Terry Crews), is selling him out to Internal Affairs. At the same time, an IA agent named Biggs (Hugh Laurie) begins investigating, trying to get Ludlow to slip up. Meanwhile, Ludlow is obviously upset over his former partner and heads out to have a "talk" with him, only to wind up in the wrong place at the wrong time when a couple of gang-bangers arrive and leave Washington full of lead.
Ludlow goes about investigating the hit on his own time, despite not having approval from Wander to do it, but he feels very strongly about this, even if it could cost him his badge. His investigation teams him up with a young homicide detective named Diskant (Chris Evans). Together, they go around to random thugs trying to find the killers. The more people they ask, the deeper they go, the closer to the truth Ludlow gets. The problem is that he may not like the truth once it is uncovered. It points to corruption within the squad that goes deeper than stopping the bad guys. At this point, Ludlow's eyes begin to open to the truth behind the facade, and his single-minded, tip of the spear thoughts begin to dissipate.
Now, one of the biggest problems is that the plot is on rails. There is not much in the way of surprise as it moves along from point to point, with a character occasionally showing up to deliver a hint. It is not unlike a video game — you fight your way through a level and are rewarded with a cut sequence where clues to the big story or tips on how to beat the next level are dispensed. It works like this all the way up to the inevitable conclusion, which you probably guessed much earlier on by the telegraphing clues.
That issue points towards a problem in the scripting phase, and this is definitely a case of over-plotting and under-writing. The screenplay is credited to the aforementioned James Ellroy, as well as Kurt Wimmer and Jamie Moss. I'm not sure how much of a hand Ellroy had with this being his first screenwriting credit. The same goes for Moss, with this being his first credit, period. Something tells me that a good portion of the script is the work of Kurt Wimmer, who has worked within this genre before with The Recruit, but he is coming off of what may be his worst work (Ultraviolet). Anyway, far be it for me to even attempt to assess blame, but watching the film I cannot help but conclude that because too much time was spent on plotting the corruption that the thought of characterization was left on the back burner where it ultimately boiled away to nothing.
The character problem is best shown with this quote: "You don't know who I am or what I want." This is perfect because it is true of the big picture. When the film ended I cannot say that I really learned anything about any of the players. During the film I never felt any reason to care about them, effectively keeping me at arm's length while the testosterone-drenched underworld opera played out.
David Ayer, in his second directorial effort, does a nice of job of translating the gritty story to the screen and doing it with some visual flair. However, I have to wonder what may have happened if he had taken a pass at the script. His first film, the underrated Harsh Times, was directed from his own script, and while it was not quite as testosterone-filled and flashy, it is a better film. Still, he does have a knack for this type of story and it is never dull.
The performances are generally decent. Reeves has taken his stoic presence to the level of art, and for as much flack as he gets, I actually enjoy his presence. Forest Whitaker takes it a little too far over the top with his face-shaking, eyes-bulging, "we're family" schtick, which was unintentionally comic. The supporting players are well cast, with Jay Mohr as a cocky detective with bad facial hair, Chris Evans as a young homicide detective, and Hugh Laurie as the IA agent on the case. Cedric the Entertainer has a small role as a felon who loves his car, offering comic relief and fitting nicely in the investigation. The Game and Common as appear as gangsters, playing their roles well, particularly Common, who has great screen presence.
Bottom line. Riddled with cliches and predictable to the end Street Kings remains riveting throughout. Even as I saw two steps ahead, watching Reeves work his way through the thugs and gangsters, picking up the blatant clues, and enjoying the R-rated goodness turned out to be fine entertainment. Sit back, grab some popcorn, pull the lap belt down, and enjoy the roller coaster ride.