I decided to take in Street Kings’ offer of gritty film noir played out on a different side of Los Angeles than we usually see. And it was a very mixed bag, but, ultimately, worth the money.
To start with the good, the plot, involving an LAPD vice officer being investigated by Internal Affairs, was intriguing and the movie certainly hummed along. No sneaking of peeks at your watch, wondering why you were only at the halfway mark. And the camera work is outstanding at bringing the gritty L.A. streets to all too believable life. Keanu Reeves (Ludlow) does a rock solid job as the officer under scrutiny — his voice, which sometimes sinks a role for him (Much Ado About Nothing, anyone?) works for this character, and he brings intensity and commitment to Ludlow’s weary, angry and ultimately bewildered soul. Hugh Laurie (Internal Affairs Captain Biggs) brings the same intensity to his steely ambitious power broker. Ludlow’s desperate desire to see in black and white so he can live with his losses and his successes makes him a pawn in a game he doesn’t know he’s playing. Laurie’s Biggs is a man who knows exactly what complex game he’s in and how to play it — and their scenes together are the most successful in the film at getting the audience to look past the characters’ differences to ask what they share.
A movie playing around in film noir territory with good actors should be able to resonate on more levels than a fast-paced action movie with the attractive results of months at the gym on display. Here, the story skeleton is solid — Ludlow is in a terrible bind and you really don't know who he can trust. The movie presents us with a series of ironies, which never settle into any one moral position. One scene resonates with another to disturb each conclusion we have just been encouraged to make. Ludlow looks like a racist thug, a hero, a corrupt cop — and that’s just in the first five minutes. Ultimately, he’s that American icon, the lone gunfighter, except he’s also what should be the opposite — the puppet on a string.
The journey we take with Ludlow in untangling who’s pulling his strings is not a new concept, but done well, this sort of exploration is always worthwhile. This movie is so close to doing it well, it hurts. Reeves, who is in almost every scene, nails the brute force mixed with painful morality that propels Ludlow into his career of what ultimately is a contract killer with a badge. Laurie effectively creates a character who slips between the aligned forces, merging morality with ambition so seamlessly we’re as appalled at the end of the movie as we were at the beginning. The other supporting players are also good, Cedric the Entertainer and Common in particular creating memorable characters who bring the streets to life. Chris Evans, too, does fine work with his everyman character longing to make his mark.