Street Kings (2008) Movie Review

Movies like “Street Kings” are sitting ducks in a shooting range for film critics who laugh all through the movie only to condemn it for being so damn entertaining. Most movies are so sedated by studio interference, creative indifference, or artless craft that when a movie comes along with style and a real no prisoners attitude, it’s looked upon like a neighbor whose party went on past midnight. Well, “Street Kings” is the kind of movie that parties past dawn, turning the volume way up, and apologizing for nothing.

This is a movie written with a hammer and chisel by neanderthal men about a bunch of other neanderthal men in the LAPD. Kurt Wimmer, inventor of that particular modern day killing system known as “gun kata” and auteur of such cult classics as “Equilibrium” and “Ultraviolet” worked on the screenplay along with the “demon dog” himself, novelist James Ellroy. Both men are not exactly known for their subtlety. The third neanderthal, David Ayer, directed the movie with what seems like a club and hatchet. Honestly, Ayer was a great choice to direct this film which together with the overrated “Training Day” which he wrote and the underrated “Harsh Times” which he wrote and directed form a kind of mad trilogy of human self-destruction.

The self-destructive human in “Street Kings” is Tom Ludlow played by an older looking and haunted Keanu Reeves. Ludlow is, to quote “Full Metal Jacket”, “…born again hard.” He’s a cop who sleeps in his clothes armed with his weapon. A cop who drinks vodka from airline sized bottles to drown out the memories of his adulterous wife’s death. A cop who goes to Koreatown and kills a bunch of child trafficers in cold blood on the orders of his Captain, Jack Wander (Forest Whitaker). Much like Russell Crowe in Curtis Hanson’s Ellroy adaptation, “LA Confidential”, Ludlow is the enforcer for a gang of rogue police officers who run the city, writing the stories on the cases they close. Wander is like a father to him, the one man Ludlow trusts in a city of betrayers.

When it seems like he’s being ratted out to Internal Affairs by Sgt. Washington (Terry Crewes) a former friend and partner turned Serpico, Ludlow finds that trust can be a fleeting thing when cops look to protect their own. When Washington is killed in a convenience store ambush, Tom happens to be at the scene of the crime trying to confront his old friend. This has bad implications which are exploited by the ambitious Captain Briggs (Hugh Laurie), a man who sees Ludlow and Wander as everything that’s wrong about the LAPD. Briggs introduces himself as an “insurance salesman” when he and Ludlow first meet and in many ways this is what he wishes to offer the tortured cop, insurance for a future without the crooked ways of Wander. But Ludlow has his own ideas and with the help of rookie cop Diskant (Chris Evans) he sets about finding the two men who killed Washington-not to bring them to justice but to kill them.

The above plot synopsis makes the film sound like some kind of serious drama about “life on the streets”. Yeah, right. That’s just the background noise for a movie that’s all about being bold and crazy and finding out which actor can shout louder than the other. I think Forest Whitaker wins that prize, with an eye-rolling performance that’s just a little bit less sweaty and angry that his Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland”. He’s like a black Lon Chaney uninformed that the days of silent movies are over.

But Whitaker is given a real run for the money from the whole cast who all seem to be hopped up on benzedrine and caffeine. The casting itself is a rogue’s gallery of randomness tossing Hugh Laurie from TV’s “House” in the same mix as Cedric the Entertainer and rapper/actor Common. Laurie’s first scene seems like a great joke in itself as he’s seen next to Ludlow in the hospital, talking a line of BS just like Dr. House. The dialogue for that matter is Ellroy by way of Oliver Stone, noir poetry by Tony Montana. Here are some of my favorites:

“Do the department a favor and wash your mouth out with buckshot.”

“We were brothers. Black and white in a black and white.”

“You dress white, talk black and drive Jew.”

A movie like this comes with flaws aplenty. The approach can be said to be over the top, the acting to be hammy, Jay Mohr’s mustache can be said to be distracting, the story full of holes, the Bond villain scene with Whitaker absurd and Ludlow’s escape near the end to be physically impossible (unless he was trained in swinging shovels into skulls while handcuffed and lying on his back). And honestly, what’s with the Korean guy in his tighty whiteys and the Kato mask? (That may be my favorite shot of the year so far. What WAS this guy into before engaging in a shootout?) But, c’mon, who really cares? Any resemblance to reality is clearly VERY coincidental.

It’s a throwback to 50s hardboiled B-flicks by guys like Aldrich and Fuller and in lots of crazy ways reminds me of Aldrich’s absolutely gonzo war drama “Attack” with Jack Palance, an actor who would’ve fit in perfectly with this cast. The film makes no apologies for its violence and profanity and Ludlow doesn’t go straight in the end. What I love about the movie is that instead of the usual cop drama where the characters have to find evidence to bring the bad guy to justice, Ludlow is just trying to kill the right people. He kills a lot of the wrong ones along the way but doesn’t seem so broken up by it. When the credits rolled, I felt exhilarated by the blunt pulpiness of it all. And although I may have missed something, I’m still wondering if someone let Jay Mohr out of the trunk.

David Ayer (director) / James Ellroy, Kurt Wimmer, Jamie Moss (screenplay)
CAST: Keanu Reeves … Detective Tom Ludlow
Forest Whitaker … Captain Jack Wander
Common … Coates
Martha Higareda … Grace Garcia
Chris Evans … Detective Paul Diskant
Hugh Laurie … Captain James Biggs