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Street Kings

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 04/11/08 00:00:00

"Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do?"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

David Ayer may only do one thing, but he does it very well. He’s the current champ of bad-cop grit; his finest works - screenplays for “Harsh Times” (which he also directed), “Dark Blue,” and “Training Day” - take us into the heart of a Los Angeles still racially divided, under the thumb of gangbangers, watched by an army of police officers who are, more often than not, on the take. Ayer is fascinated by the gray areas that exist in the world of black and blue, where good men will do bad things and bad men will do good things, where the end always justifies the means.

Now comes “Street Kings,” Ayer’s second film as director and his first to be written by someone else. It’s easy to see why he was attracted to this project. Thematically, the script (by Kurt Wimmer, Jamie Moss, and veteran author James Ellroy, from a story by Ellroy) contains echoes of Ayer’s past works: the corrupt cop as dark savior, the internal battles between rival police divisions, the journeys into the darkest corners of the city.

The convoluted story opens with the morally questionable Detective Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves) rescuing two kidnapped girls. His methods include murder, evidence tampering, and a string of rights violations, and the movie poses the same questions that have been asked since the early days of Dirty Harry: at what point do we cheer for a cop breaking the law to stop truly evil men, and at what point do we admonish them?

The script is not subtle in tackling the issue. Quickly after the incident, Ludlow is confronted by his former partner, Detective Washington (Terry Crews), and the two debate - if such a delicate term can be applied to their snarling match - over the finer points of “suspect” and “victim.” Earlier, Ludlow’s boss, Captain Wander (Forest Whitaker), commends him on his quick action and guarantees a quick cover-up.

Ludlow’s team is a tight unit and presumably the dirtiest in town. When a cop who was about to talk with internal affairs gets killed, the team laughs it off as a bit of good luck. Tom was there when the cop was murdered, and his mates are fast to help cover up his involvement. But to do so would be to let two killers go free, and that doesn’t sit well with Ludlow, who begins a covert investigation of the incident. Teaming with a naïve rookie nicknamed Disco (Chris Evans), Tom peels away the layers of a gangland conspiracy that grows more complex with each revelation.

Of course, even if you’ve only been paying a little attention to the proceedings, you’ll be able to guess where most of the trails lead (although there are still plenty of enjoyable surprises before we get there). But “Street Kings” isn’t so much about fooling the audiences; it’s ultimately not even about the somber questions about the morality of law-bending cops. It’s simply about the thrill ride. As a police procedural/murder mystery, the script is top notch, packed with colorful characters, exciting twists, and the occasional gripping shoot-out.

The screenplay then builds on top of this a tone best described as operatic - by the final scenes, we’re dealing with melodrama blown way over the top, ridiculous revelations that would be nonsensical if not for the actors who present it. “Street Kings” grows bigger and bigger, the story threatening to collapse upon itself but never actually imploding.

While Reeves is quite convincing as a conflicted man of action, it’s Whitaker’s casual restraint that helps the movie survive its wildest, most dramatically absurd moments. Who else can handle such oversized scenes with that cool, calm demeanor that makes him look mellow even when he’s screaming? Who else could take such potentially absurd dialogue as “You were toe-to-toe with evil and you won” and “You can’t ride the tiger forever” and make it sing? Whitaker is here for the movie’s biggest, craziest, most histrionic moments, and he sucks us in but good.

Indeed, Ayer packs his film with quality talent, even in the smallest roles. Hugh Laurie pops up as a House-esque internal affairs operative; rappers Common and The Game fill two minor but essential parts; Cedric the Entertainer is a drug-dealing weasel; John Corbett and Jay Mohr fill out Tom’s squad.

So what could have otherwise been a throwaway cop thriller gets something of a pedigree, while Ayer’s attention to bad-cop detail (and his knack for crafting tight thrills) keeps the action afloat. As a character study or morality tale, “Street Kings” doesn’t stack up against Ayer’s earlier works, but for basic thrills and grand-scale dramatics, it’s thoroughly involving, with a suspenseful rhythm that builds in all the right directions.

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