Saturday, April 12, 2008
Caught between Captain Wander (Whitaker) and Captain Biggs (Laurie) is LAPD Vice Detective Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves). From the start of the film we know he's a corrupt cop and one of Wander's boys. The film opens with him setting up some thugs to be killed and then "fixing" the crime scene. Sure he's doing it for a good reason - like Dirty Harry he's trying to rescue kidnapped girls - but he's definitely bending the rules to get the job done. At the crime scene, his ex-partner, an African American cop named Washington (Terry Crews), challenges him and questions his methods. The guys he killed may have been scum, he says, but they had rights. The incident, combined with another murder and a series of other dubious activities soon place Ludlow under the close scrutiny of Biggs. This makes Wander nervous because Ludlow has been his attack dog for years and has enough dirt to bury the captain and the other cops on the team. It doesn't take long for things to spiral out of control with Ludlow uncertain about who he can trust, if anyone.
Keanu Reeves and John Corbett (that's right Chris from Northern Exposure gone bad) in Street Kings (Fox Searchlight)
This kind of cop drama is what Ellroy excels at. It's similar turf to his L.A. Confidential and Black Dahlia . And Ayer would seem a suitable director having scripted the dark police drama Training Day in which Denzel Washington was a dirty cop. Yet somewhere on its way to the big screen Street Kings just fell apart. The first sign of trouble might have been the casting of Keanu Reeves. Reeves can be good when used to his best advantage and tapping into his limited range of skills. So as the goofy pothead in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure or as the well-posed action hero of The Matrix , he can be quite enjoyable. But he's simply all wrong as a supposed veteran cop who's gotten to where he is by doing everyone else's dirty work. This role needed someone who looked old and tired, someone who maybe didn't have the best education or had known much comfort in life. Kurt Russell had more of those qualities (plus he's a better actor than Reeves) when he played a not so by the book cop in Ellroy's Dark Blue . But Reeves is still too much the pretty boy and he's simply not convincing reeling off racial slurs and busting heads for no reason. That just doesn't jib with his particular screen karma. Reeves is not good at playing bad, he lacks for the edge and the depth to pull off this kind of role.
But Reeves can't shoulder all the blame for the failure of Street Kings. Street Kings is clearly a Training Day wannabe. But neither Ayer nor his trio of writers (Ellroy, Kurt Wimmer and Jamie Moss) nor Reeves for that matter seem willing to go as dark as that film. In Training Day, Washington was a dirty cop because he chose to be a dirty cop and he stayed that way until the end, yet he managed to confuse us with strong personal charm that kept making us think he would eventually turn good. He was willing to turn to the dark side as an actor. In Street Kings there's no commitment on the part of the filmmakers to stay dark and that means they have to do a lot of fancy footwork to wrench some kind of a Hollywood ending out of the mess they create. In the end, they leave us with a sense that everyone is willing to bend the rules and lie yet that conclusion seems to come from necessity on the part of the filmmakers rather than from what makes sense for the characters. Based on Ellroy's other works, I have to believe that his storyline got lost in all the rewrites.
There's one point in the film where Laurie's IA cop takes Ludlow aside and begs him to consider an important fact about a cop who was killed: "was he killed because he's dirty or because he came clean." Duh! The audience had figured that one out about 60 minutes earlier. That's one of the film's other problems - it's clumsy, predictable plotting. After the opening, we're ready to read everything as some kind of set up. Since everyone seems dirty, we quickly become suspicious of everyone's motives. The film lacks the kind of clever dense plotting that makes Ellroy's work fun. Street Kings has a dense cluttered plot but not a clever one.
Keanu Reeves in Street King (Fox Searchlight)
The film isn't helped by lame lines such as Wander justifying the murder of some suspects as "you went toe to toe with evil." Or having Ludlow's nurse/girlfriend suggesting that "good can come from bad." Or having the corrupt behavior explained away as just "about cops helping cops." Where's Ellroy's dark humor and tough talk? Most of the dialogue and the characters simply fall flat here.
Characters also just behave stupidly. At one point, Ludlow give a cop's widow a security camera DVD of her husband's death - you know to help her get over it. Excuse me? Does that make any sense? Why would she want to see her husband brutally gunned down? Similarly, when Ludlow's former partner makes accusations about Ludlow's shoddy police work, he chooses to do so by speaking up for the rights of a gang of drug dealers who were keeping little girls in a cage. The scene just plays false. It would have been more believable if he just gave Ludlow a warning or something to think about by suggesting that this time maybe the suspects were guilty but what happens if he's wrong?
Ayer's direction doesn't compensate for the script's flaws. The only strength I saw was his ability to shot tight quartered fight in a lean efficient manner. Other than that, his film reveals little visual style or flair. The corruption isn't palpable, it doesn't have a texture to it like it did in L.A. Confidential or Chinatown . Ayer doesn't have much feel for his L.A. locale or for the kind of camaraderie that develops among cops.
Street Kings (rated R for strong violence and pervasive language) has nothing to redeem itself. I'm surprised Ellroy didn't demand to have his name removed from this film. This was even more disappointing a police outing than the recent We Own the Night.
Companion viewing: Training Day, Dark Blue, L.A. Confidential, Serpico, Point Break , and the documentary James Ellroy: Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction