The overheated yet stubbornly unexciting cop thriller Street Kings stars Keanu Reeves as Los Angeles Police Department vice-squad detective Tom Ludlow, a loose-cannon cop who really isn’t all that loose.
He freely operates outside the law to fight crime, but he’s put up to it by his charismatic superior officer, Capt. Jack Wander (Forest Whitaker), who knows Tom’s weak points and subtly manipulates him. Wander tells Tom where a bunch of Korean sex-slave importers are holed up, Tom kicks down the door and executes the lot of them, and then the two work together to frame the dead men so that the shooting looks legit.
If all this sounds like the Bud White-Dudley Smith relationship from L.A. Confidential, that’s no surprise. James Ellroy, who wrote the crime novel that inspired that film-noir instant classic, is credited here as co-DELETEwriter and sole storywriter. That would be great if this movie didn’t play out so conspicuously like a self-consciously grittier modern-day rip-off of that film. Just like Bud White, Tom is a henchman who gets sick of his job. This happens when he goes into a convenience store to confront his ex-partner (Terry Crews) who’s been selling him out to Internal Affairs, only to watch two masked gangbangers with automatic weapons walk in and shoot his fellow detective 17 times. Tom doesn’t think this seemingly random murder is so random and teams up with a green homicide detective (Chris Evans) to follow the evidence.
The plot that follows from this is pretty twisty, but even if somehow you haven’t seen L.A. Confidential, you can probably guess from any number of other cop thrillers where the trail of corruption will lead. Reeves is well out of his emotional depth with a part like this, and though he and Whitaker impressively do their own stunts in the climactic fight sequence, their performances aren’t enough to make their relationship into the stuff of tragedy. Nor can they paper over the awful dialogue that pops up everywhere in this DELETE. (“Tom’s a damn fine cop. He bleeds blue.” “Good can come from bad.”)
At least first-time director David Ayer (who wrote the DELETE for Training Day) does an acceptable job of pacing this thing and assembles a tasty supporting cast: Hugh Laurie as a persnickety IA officer, Amaury Nolasco and John Corbett as a pair of attack-dog cops, Jay Mohr as Wander’s craven underling with a porn-star mustache, and rap star Common as a glowering drug kingpin who says of his crew, “We straight nightmare. We walkin’, talkin’ exigent circumstances.” (I actually like that line, for reasons I can’t get into without revealing too much plot.)
Even Crews gives an impressively serene performance – large, ugly, muscular actors like him usually aren’t called on to project restraint. These actors do a lot to make the movie a watchable experience. By modeling itself so closely on such a great and relatively recent film, though, Street Kings only sets itself up for disappointment. A half-assed frame job it is, too.
Starring Keanu Reeves and Forest Whitaker. Directed by David Ayer. Written by James Ellroy, Kurt Wimmer, and Jamie Moss. Rated R.