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Street Kings   B

Fox Searchlight Pictures / Regency Enterprises

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: R
Director: David Ayer
Writer: James Ellroy, Kurt Wimmer, Jamie Moss
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Forest Whitaker, Hugh Laurie, Chris Evans, Cedric the Entertainer, Jay Mohr, Terry Crews, Naomie Harris, Common, The Game.

Review by Rob Vaux

While no one will mistake Street Kings for the most original motion picture ever made, it demonstrates the value of commitment to a project. Yes, we've all seen the notion of corrupt cops who run their operations like just another gang before. Indeed, one of the best purveyors of such mayhem is Street Kings co-screenwriter James Ellroy, whose novels delved deep into the concept long before Steven Bochco and his ilk gussied it up for mass consumption. The man knows evil-with-a-badge like few others, which tempers his psychotic excess into hypnotic studies of well-intentioned men struggling against systematic monstrosity. Director David Ayers thrives here because he respects that and devotes himself to delivering it straight without letting the proceedings devolve into a smirk.

Street Kings also benefits from the surprisingly effective presence of Keanu Reeves, going against type as one of Ellroy's patented bulls in a china shop. His Detective Tom Ludlow has a very simple approach to police work: ensure you're the last man standing, then make up any story you want. He approaches his job in quick and lethal terms, which helps him think like a criminal and bring them down all the more effectively. To his boss Captain Wander (Forest Whitaker), he's "the tip of the spear" holding the animals at bay. As long as he stops bad people, Wander and his team (including John Corbett, Jay Mohr, and Amaury Nolasco) will be there to cover his back.

But one former member of that band of brothers has been causing trouble of late: Ludlow's former partner Terrence Washington (Terry Crews), a certified snitch and possible drug dealer who stands poised to bring his ex-friend's career down in flames. Then one day Ludlow follows the man in hopes of (ahem) vigorously confronting him, only to see a couple of liquor store robbers do the job properly and vanish into the L.A. smog. With the rat now full of lead, his troubles seem over... until the stirrings of conscience compel him to go after the culprits, and what seemed like a helpful (if gory) coincidence soon points to something much bigger than a dirty cop in the wrong place at the wrong time.

If you know Ellroy, you may have some idea of where it's all headed. But Ayers makes the trip worthwhile largely through his excellent eye for asphalt level L.A. and his careful attention to Ludlow's moral dilemma. Good cops exist in this world (part of the audience's interest stems from figuring out who they are), but they are few and far between, and even their efforts serve the whims of powerful and amoral men. Ludlow's search -- aided by a detective outside of his coterie (Chris Evans) -- is intended to redeem his soul, but Street Kings toys with the question of whether that's possible in an environment so thoroughly compromised. It rarely travels across untouched ground, but it still carries weight with it, and Reeves' performance (truly minimalist rather than just undercooked) retains the anger that drives his character forward through good and wicked deeds alike. Whitaker makes a fine counterpoint to Reeves' quiet seething: nobody else can go cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs so deliriously as he, and while Street Kings walks a very fine line between intensity and camp with him, it ultimately falls on the right side of the equation (fitting the film further within Ellroy's auteurial ethos).

Ayers keeps the pacing taut as well, with fiercely kinetic shoot-outs and an arresting look from DP Gabriel Beristain which conveys the city's appropriately hellish landscape. More importantly, he's able to streamline Ellroy's typically Byzantine plot without either losing his viewers or skimping on the pitch-black texture that the writer crafts so well. The brutality of the violence punctuates Street Kings without becoming gratuitous, reflecting the harsh world Ludlow lives in but neither exploiting the bloodshed nor sanctimoniously wringing its hands about how awful it all is. While hardly neo-realist, it aspires to an admirable level of grit, within which it finds more than enough modest truths to keep us engaged. The bumps appear mainly in the standard nature of the scenario and in a few strained attempts at humor which don't serve the remainder of the film especially well. Hugh Laurie does what he can with an odd supporting role that doesn't quite fit him, and occasional moments of undue plot convenience confound an otherwise grounded attention to detail. Street Kings overcomes those shortcomings much like its hero does: by keeping an eye on what it's doing and never losing sight of its goals.

Review published 04.16.2008.

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