James Ellroy (LA Confidential; The Black Dahlia; Cop) is to the Los Angeles Police Department what Michael Moore is to George W Bush. He's a one-man black wash, a PR flak's worst nightmare. Even so, I'll bet his books are well thumbed in the precincts. His down and dirty detectives don't spend too much time filling out forms in triplicate.
Street Kings takes a vintage Ellroy scenario (the script was also worked on Kurt Wimmer and Jamie Moss) about a rogue vigilante cop, Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves), and his belated crisis of conscience when his ex partner is shot dead before his eyes. What makes the dilemma particularly painful is that Ludlow was on the point of beating the crap out of him for talking to Internal Affairs (headed by a very serious Hugh Laurie). To make matters worse he accidentally shoots the guy in all the confusion. And the bloody farce is recorded on a store surveillance camera. Imagine what IA could make of that.
Fortunately Ludlow's boss Wander (Forest Whitaker) has his back. He's happy to turn a blind eye to the mess, but gets impatient when Ludlow insists on tracking down the killers. After all, what can be gained by reopening that can of worms?
Fans of Ellroy, or indeed the films written by director David Ayer (which include Training Day and Dark Blue) will have a pretty good idea of where this is headed, even if it takes Ludlow rather longer to put two and two together. In fact, if the bad guys didn't fill him in on the scheme prior to finishing him off (or so they imagine) he'd probably still be trying to figure it out.
See, Ludlow is a doer, not a thinker. "You're the tip of the spear," Wander tells him, admiringly. "Who else is going to hold back the animals?"
We get a handle on him early on. In the very first scene he wakes up, vomits, cleans his gun and knocks back a couple of vodka miniatures. Then he crashes a kidnapper's den and puts down four of the heavies before they know what's hit them. "Don't worry," he tells the little girls caged in the back, "I'm a cop."
He's not a team player, obviously. It's probably superfluous to add that he's still nursing a grievous hangover from the wife who died in flagrante with person unknown two or three years ago (unless I missed something, the movie leaves that mysterious little titbit hanging).
Ludlow may not play by the rules, but Street Kings does. The clichés stack up so quickly I couldn't help thinking of Hot Fuzz (and never having watched House, I kept wondering if Rowan Atkinson might show up).
But the movie still works, partly by the odd flash of genuine inspiration - I loved it that when he's transferred to a desk job to keep out of trouble Ludlow winds up in the Complaints Department, where he's advised not to follow his instincts and cover up his brothers in blue, that will all be taken care of higher up the chain of command. This, we can be sure, must be Ludlow's idea of purgatory.
It's acted with conviction - Naomie Harris is very good, as ever, as the dead partner's wife; and Whitaker chews up the scenery, quite appropriately, as the larger than life Captain Wander. Reeves doesn't do much "acting" as such, he's not the type to be drinking up anyone's milkshake, if you get my drift, but his performance is clean and spare, perfectly in synch with Ayer's clipped functionalism, which is all about getting down to business. In addition, Reeves has a doleful quality that goes some way to redeem a fundamentally nasty and wretchedly naïve character.
Violent and cynical and a shade or two over-determined, Street Kings is a standard issue genre piece with a more brutal disposition than most. We've seen it before and we'll see it again, precisely because the myths buried within are rooted deep in the American psyche: what price an honest cop when the whole barrel of apples is rotting away?
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