Director : David Ayer
Screenplay : James Ellroy and Kurt Wimmer and Jamie Moss (story by James Ellroy)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : Keanu Reeves (Detective Tom Ludlow), Forest Whitaker (Captain Jack Wander), Hugh Laurie (Captain James Biggs), Chris Evans (Detective Paul Diskant), Martha Higareda (Grace Garcia), Cedric the Entertainer (Scribble), Jay Mohr (Sgt. Mike Clady), Terry Crews (Detective Terrence Washington), Naomie Harris (Linda Washington), Common (Coates), Cle Sloan (Fremont), The Game (Grill), Amaury Nolasco (Detective Cosmo Santos), Kenneth Choi (Boss Kim), Noel Gugliemi (Quicks)
Judging by the number of and's in the list of writers credited to the screenplay, it's not hard to discern what probably happened to the brooding action-thriller Street Kings. At the top of the screenwriting heap we have celebrated novelist James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential), who is also given story credit, which means he wrote the original screenplay. Then, in descending order of credit we have Kurt Wimmer, the writer/director behind 2006's Ultraviolet, and then newcomer Jamie Moss. Thus, just from reading the screenplay credit we can see a likely scenario in which Ellroy wrote a script exploring issues of the law, morality, and redemption, and the studio brass had it reworked until all that heavy thematic stuff was pushed as far as possible to the back burner to make way for more gun violence and terse macho posturing.
Street Kings plays like a cousin to Dark Blue (2003), a similarly themed corrupt-cop morality tale for which Ellroy provided the story and David Ayer, who directed Street Kings, wrote the screenplay. Hence, without even diving back into the gritty heyday of '70s corrupt police stories like Dirty Harry (1971) and Serpico (1973), we can see that we're in familiar territory (especially given the prevalence of such stories on television series like NYPD Blue and The Shield). Dark Blue offset its rather routine narrative via historical placement in the days leading up to the South Central L.A. riots in 1992; Street Kings, on the other hand, goes for sheer energy instead, and while it's never boring, it's never particularly captivating, either.
Keanu Reeves stars as Detective Tom Ludlow, the “sharp point” at the end of a spear wielded by Captain Jack Wander (Forest Whitaker). The spear is a team of police officers known as Administrative Vice, whom Wander uses as an outside-the-law system of judge, jury, and executioner. In the film's opening sequence we watch as Ludlow sets up a pair of Korean baddies with a faux arms deal so he can follow them back to their hideout, blow them and their buddies away, and free a pair of teenage girls they've kidnapped. It's all heroics for Ludlow, but at the expense of law and order since the goal from the beginning was to kill the bad guys and then place evidence suggesting that it was a legitimate use of force. Ludlow is clearly becoming weary of this activity, evidenced by his constant slamming of vodka from airplane bottles and his generally weary demeanor (some have suggested that Reeves was miscast here, but I think he brings an effective degree of world-weariness, with his unique vocal cadences suggesting gusto barely masking exhaustion).
Things heat up when Ludlow's former partner, a do-gooder who is apparently about to rat out the entire team, is machine-gunned in a liquor store. It just so happens that Ludlow was in the store at the time with the intention of breaking his former partner's jaw, thus he seems to be incriminated in what only an idiot would think is a robbery-gone-bad (how many robbers carry machine guns and ignore the cash register while blasting everyone in sight?). Wander tells Ludlow to leave it alone, but he can't. He eventually pairs with a younger detective (Chris Evans) in his pursuit to discover the identities of the killers, which quickly leads into a game of peeling back the various layers of corruption until you get to the deep, dark center. There is certainly something compelling in the film's ideas, but the way they're executed suggest that any true questions about morality and the law are just grist for the action mill. Plus, it's hard not to see where it's heading from early on, making the dramatic climax fundamentally anticlimactic.
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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