Somewhere in Los Angeles, police officers are helping old ladies across the street, but such acts of chivalry have no place in “Street Kings,” a brutal look at police corruption that allows director David Ayer and “L.A. Confidential” author James Ellroy to pool their deeply cynical insights. Keanu Reeves leads a pack of modern-day cowboys who shoot first and plant evidence later, a system that serves the squad well until an ex-partner snitches to Internal Affairs. The gritty pic more than earns its R rating but should open strong regardless and stick around as action-starved auds take in the carnage.
Screenplay credit goes to Ellroy, Kurt Wimmer and Jamie Moss, but Ayer’s fingerprints are there, too. “Street Kings” cements the “Training Day” scribe’s standing as Hollywood’s go-to LAPD guy, reinforcing the writer-director’s thesis that the thin blue line deals in shades of gray.
Such notions about the widespread abuse of power (in response to the Rodney King incident but given new resonance today) register as far more troubling than anything seen in the Nixon-era “Dirty Harry,” where it took a single rule-breaker to maintain law and order, and yet Ayer judges Reeves’ Tom Ludlow as a necessary evil. “Who else is gonna hold back the animals?” the movie asks.
Ludlow operates by any means necessary, confident that his longtime commanding officer Jack Wander (Forest Whitaker) will cover for him. Dead suspects don’t talk, but they go a long way toward advancing the careers of everyone involved, as evidenced by the promotions that follow Ludlow’s cavalier raid on an Asian sex den in the pic’s opening setpiece.
Like the checkered antiheroes of “Training Day” and “Harsh Times” (Ayer’s self-financed directorial debut), Ludlow belongs to a class of broken lawmen who drink or dope on the job. Reeves telegraphs Ludlow’s troubled condition by downing single-swig vodka bottles while speeding between crime scenes, but the booze has no visible impact on his behavior; nor does the suggestion that he’s coping with his wife’s death. All in all, Ludlow is grappling with some pretty serious demons, but Reeves has never been one for nuance, wrestling to convey the mix of renegade and boy scout required.
Like a nagging conscience, Ludlow’s former partner Terrence Washington (Terry Crews) shows up on the scene to question his methods. Soon after, Ludlow learns the turncoat is selling out his squad to IA and, in an implausible scene on which the entire pic hinges, confronts him in a convenience store just as a couple gangbangers burst in with guns blazing.
Wander and his buddies are quick to clear Ludlow’s name — the first sign that there’s something far more sinister at work among L.A.’s finest. A temporary demotion lands Ludlow on the complaints desk, where Ayer unleashes a comic montage of ghetto stereotypes as hookers and hood rats alike air their grievances over how they’ve been handled by the police.
Pic itself is similarly conflicted, glamorizing gunslinging while crying foul over unnecessary force, and Ayer proves sensitive to race even as he perpetuates such stock characterizations as the sultry Latina love interest (Martha Higareda) or the clueless white boy (Chris Evans).
The helmer embraces the energy and raw style of such William Friedkin films as “The French Connection” and “To Live and Die in L.A.” Like those films, the adrenaline-fueled “Street Kings” experience is all about being caught up in the moment, yet auds need only take a step back to see the plot is riddled with holes (how is it that auds can be so much more attuned to the conspiracy than an experienced officer?).
The dialogue is punctuated with police jargon, which lends credibility to scenes set within L.A.’s roughest neighborhoods, as does the brusque Foley work associated with punches and gunshots. Ayer aims for a sense of heightened realism, staging the key confrontations operatically enough to ensure word of mouth and repeat viewing.
The diverse and talented multiculti cast includes rappers Common and the Game as key villains.