Street Kings

“Street Kings,” David Ayer's sophomore directing effort, is a disappointingly conventional policier, a genre item about corruption within the LAPD force that builds on the traditions of Ayer's screenplay of “Training Day” (for which Denzel Washington won an Oscar) and co-writer James Ellroy's “L.A. Confidential,” both superior works as dramas and movies.

Based on an “original” story by James Ellroy, the script is co-penned by Ellroy, Kurt Wimmer, and Jamie Moss. However, the only elements that are new here are the degree of greed and corruption within the unit and the excessive cynicism, or the declining shadings of gray as far as moral ambiguity is concerned. To be fair, the filmmakers acknowledge that such a depiction of our guardians of justice and crime protectors might not be the best propaganda for L.A. and American society at the present.

The picture's further problems are presented by Keanu Reeves as the “good-bad cop,” who is not the most credibly cast police officer in film history. Weathered by age (and experience), Reeves acquits himself honorably (but no more), but his performance lacks the depth and power that a better-skilled actor would have given to the lead role, one that basically serves as the center of the drama.

While this is one of the meatiest parts Reeves has played in a long time, appearing in practically every scene, he is often asked to recite improbable lines, and his big confrontation scene with Forest Whitaker (also underwhelming) is mostly done by screaming and shouting at each other mumbo jumbo about real manhood and service.

Philosophically, Ayer, and particularly Ellroy, continue to explore the notion of L.A. as a city of inherent contradictions, where forces of light and darkness are prevalent in almost equal proportions-literally and figuratively–in a continuously state of conflict. Another familiar thematic element that comes across is the mythos of the single savior-avenging cop who's incorruptible.

Reeves stars as Tom Ludlow, a veteran LAPD cop who finds life difficult to navigate after the death of his wife. (It's hard not to notice that at present our screens are filled with heroes and heroines who are widows/widowers and/or single parents, a reflection of the gloomy zeitgeist in the post 9/11 era).

When evidence implicates Ludlow in the execution of a fellow officer, he is forced to go up against the sub-culture he's been a part of his entire career, ultimately leading him to question the loyalties of everyone around himand I mean everyone.

Some secondary characters make the saga slightly more interesting: City law officers, Ludlow's commanding supervisor, and a rookie cop eager to taste real action and fight crime-at a price.

For a while, the scripters are trying to create complexity and ambiguity by refusing to judge Ludlow as a hero or villain, presenting his condition as revolving around the crucial question of “Who else is gonna hold back the animals” In other words, somebody must continue to do the “dirty” job of cleaning up our social institutions and our streets.

In the first chapters, Ludlow's functions are based on trust. He's confident that his commanding officer Jack Wander (Forest Whitaker) will cover for him no matter what he does, holding that the goal justifies the means used by him, be they legit or illegit. And, indeed, Ludlow is rewarded with compliments and promotions after invading an Asian sex-drug den.

Just in case we get the wrong impression that Ludlow is a saint, early on, he is seen drinking while driving–speedily–for an assignment (and later doing drugs). Is he drinking as a way to cope with the grief, loss. and void created after his wife's death No matter. Ludlow swallows quantities of vodka that would have impacted any ordinary man in his leisure time, let alone a cop on the job.

At first, Ludlow's former partner Terrence Washington (Terry Crews) questions his methods. But when Ludlow discovers that Washington is selling out his squad to IA, he confronts him in a convenience store; it just happens that the encounter occurs when some violent hoodlums burst into the place. In short (but rather improbable) order, Ludlow's name is clear by Wander, though as a punitive (and humiliating) measure, he is assigned to a desk job.

Having seen numerous policiers, we know that it's only a matter of time before Ludlow will be back on the streets, fighting crime within and without the police, thus justifying the picture's title.

The film's second half is even more predictable in its depiction of the relationship between Ludlow and his greener companion, Captain Diskant (Chris Evans), going through the motions of training on the job, risking his life, and so on.

What slightly elevates the policier above the routine is the stellar cast, particularly the supporting ensemble. In his first post-Oscar winning role, Forest Whitaker plays Captain Jack Wander, Ludlows mentor and superior. But, as noted, he is not very convincing (largely due to the writing), and in the climax, in which we learn about his true identity, and which is badly staged, he is particularly disappointing as he mostly screams and yells a Ludlow.

Other members of the largely male ensemble include Hugh Laurie (still better known for his TV work in “House”), handsomer Chris Evans, Jay Mohr, John Corbett, Cedric the Entertainer, and Amaury Nolasco. The two female members are played by Brit Naomie Harris and Martha Higareda.
But sadly, there is not a singly convincing performance in the film. Based on his part here, it's impossible to tell whether TV's Hugh Laurie has a future on the big screen.

In terms of production, the instrumental force behind the scenes is Erwin Stoff, who's credited as producer and has functioned as Keanu Reeves' career manager and as such has been in charge of choosing film projects for him.

Initially, the aptly titled “Street Kings” was a period piece set in post-Rodney King Los Angeles, which might have worked better. However, for the movie, the yarn has been reconceptualized in a contemporary setting, while keeping the story's general narrative threads in line with Ellroys original vision, manifest in his extensive literary output about the uniqueness of L.A. as a city, past and present.

While the text is overly familiar from decades of American policiers, hailing back to Fritz Lang's 1950s noir crimers (“The Big Heat”), 1970s revenge sagas like Clint Eastwood's seminal “Dirty Harry” film series and Sidney Lumet's grand work in the genre (“Serpico,” “Prince of the City”), the subtext is fresher and more interesting in centering on the values and mores of that define current police culture, the primary pressures for conformity and compliance, in both its positive and negative elements, but also the possibility, necessity and price of deviating from that culture when the situation calls for it.

Ultimately, “Street Kings” is again locating its dramatic center–fighting police corruption and greed–at the individual level, describing the various consequences of that mission for the cop involved (Ludlow), the larger collective (the police force as a whole), and American society at large.

All this is by way of saying that “Street Kings” walks a very fine line between being a compelling cinema at the price of promoting a more positive ideology, since it depicts the police force in such a cold and cynical way as to raise doubts whether we as citizens can truly go to bed at night with the minimal assurance that our formal agents of order are–or have the capacity of–guarding us.

Space doesn't permit me to deal with the filmmaker's intent (and overt contention) that in producing “Street Kings,” “We were sticking to our guns, making a movie for adults that's edgy and tells the truth about what it is like to be a cop in Los Angeles.

On a technical level, the movie looks decent, but, as he showed in his feature debut, “Harsh Times,” Ayer doesn't have the natural instincts/skills or the facility of telling a story smoothly. In fact, his staging of the action scenes is so rudimentary and rough that he could have benefited from the services of a pro on the set.

Cast

Det. Tom Ludlow – Keanu Reeves
Capt. Jack Wander – Forest Whitaker
Capt. James Biggs – Hugh Laurie
Det. Paul Diskant – Chris Evans
Scribble – Cedric “The Entertainer” Kyles
Sgt. Mike Clady – Jay Mohr
Det. Terrence Washington – Terry Crews
Linda Washington – Naomie Harris
Coates – Common
Grill – The Game
Grace Garcia – Martha Higareda
Det. Dante Demille – John Corbett
Det. Cosmo Santos – Amaury Nolasco

Credits

A Fox Searchlight release presented with Regency Entertainment of a 3 Arts Entertainment production.
Produced by Lucas Foster, Alexandra Milchan, Erwin Stoff.
Executive producers: Arnon Milchan, Michele Weisler, Bob Yari, Bruce Berman.
Directed by David Ayer.
Screenplay, James Ellroy, Kurt Wimmer, Jamie Moss; story, Ellroy.
Camera: Gabriel Beristain.
Editor: Jeffrey Ford.
Music: Graeme Revell; music supervisors, John Houlihan, Season Kent.
Production designer: Alec Hammond.
Art director: Al Hobbs.
Art decorator: Hilton Rosemarin.
Sound: Lori Dovi; supervising sound editor, Piero Mura.
Special effects coordinator: Bruce Vanzeebroeck; visual effects supervisor, Chris Watts.

MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 107 Minutes.

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