Cops countermanding the law, using the close-knit nature of their badge to secretly settle scores on the street, have long since become a cinematic cliché. The police have gone from donut-munching jokes to felons in blue and black finery. From the decent beat officer taking bribes to buffer his paycheck, to the undercover operative in so deep he no longer remembers what side of society he's on, "to protect and serve" has been modified -- at least in the movies -- to "pervert and steal." Street Kings, the latest motion picture inspired by a story from James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential), dabbles freely in this kind of corrupt no man's land, and for the most part, it's a thrilling journey.
Alcoholic police detective Todd Ludlow (Keanu Reeves
) has just finished wrapping up a notorious kidnapping case when Captain Jack Wander (Forest Whittaker
) gives him the bad news. His ex-partner Terrence Washington (Terry Crews
) is talking to Internal Affairs, and bureau head Captain James Biggs (Hugh Laurie
) is looking to take Ludlow down. Before he can intimidate his former friend into not snitching, a pair of gang bangers kill him. Desperate to clear his own name in the death, Ludlow begins to investigate. Soon, he's linking the crime to a couple of local drug dealers who seem incapable of committing the hit. With Wander on his side and Biggs on his back, it will take all the street savvy he has to solve the case -- that is, if someone doesn't try and permanently stop him too. Article continues below
Never really surprising us, even as it crackles with cinematic energy, Street Kings is an inherently engaging crime drama. Even though we know where the narrative is going before the characters do, and grasp the ambiguous moralizing right up front, Training Day screenwriter David Ayers
, delivers a gritty, gratuitous entertainment. As only his second time behind the camera (the first being the underrated Harsh Times
), he finds the proper balance between urban crime and uptown punishment. Sure, the casting is a little bizarre (Cedric the Entertainer
as a hard-nosed heroin addict? Hugh Laurie as a brutish Internal Affairs chief?), but for every odd beat, Ayers has an action movie answer. There are many moments when this standard police procedural feels like a contemporary Chinatown filtered through a subtler Scarface. At other instances, it all falls apart.
Reeves finally shakes his post-Matrix malaise to deliver a finely tuned turn as Ludlow. Face puffy with the initial stages of gin blossoms, and his attitude soured as much as soused, he comes across as defiant, but dour, capable of great heroism. That is, when he isn't violating every protocol and Constitutional protection imaginable. He is matched well by Whitaker, who seems permanently wound up and amplified here. Their scenes together arc with unexpected dramatics. Along the edges, Fantastic Four's Chris Evans and comedian Jay Mohr offer intriguing takes on the good cop/bad cop dynamic. Even Cedric and Laurie manage to overcome our expectations to deliver key performances.
It's just too bad then that Street Kings doesn't offer up anything new or original. Indeed, fans of Curtis Hanson's Oscar winning Ellroy adaptation from 1997 may be able to predict the ending without seeing the entire storyline. Yet Ayers delivers enough genre basics, turning the narrative in ways that make the clichés seem clever, that we don't mind revisiting these stale situations. Calling a film derivative is usually considered detrimental. For Street Kings, being an above-average example of an overused idea is not necessarily a bad thing. An influx of invention would have made this a modern classic. As it stands, it's solidly serviceable.