s is a pungent bouquet of corruption, violence, multi-ethnic mayhem, macho glee laced with macho angst, and fluorescently obscene dialogue from the mind of James Ellroy. Its hero, though he'd scarcely consent to be called one, is L.A. police detective Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves), for whom life is a wound that won't heal and dealing out retribution to scumbags is the ongoing treatment. Ludlow's the star player--"the tip of the [expletive] spear"--on a team of detectives headed by Capt. Jack Wander (Forest Whitaker). Coach Wander relies on his boys to keep breaking lurid cases, usually through deeply darkside underground work, and raising his profile with the media and the department. In pursuit of these goals, nothing is forbidden except failure, and the truth is what you make it look like. This is familiar Ellroy territory, most effectively translated to the screen in L.A. Confidential
(which should have won the 1997 Oscar, and would have if Titanic
hadn't launched that year). If you know Ellroy's ground game, you can pretty much guess where Street Kings is going, and where it's been. Still, the twists and torques of its urban road-rage course maintain the centrifugal force needed to hold us in our seats (a tactical highlight: refrigerator adapted as rolling barricade), and the movie keeps bopping us with oddball casting coups: comic Jay Mohr and Northern Exposure/Sex and the Cit
y veteran John Corbett as two members of Coach Warden's gonzo detective squad; Cedric the Entertainer doing a nicely nuanced turn as a street creature; Hugh Laurie doing a less-hyper version of House
, if House worked Internal Affairs.
The problem is that director David Ayer keeps everything intense. Dialogues are shot too close-up, line readings are too strident, the action is too nonstop slam. Recall Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential
and the mind's eye summons up a whole spectrum of existence, mood, place, historical period, emotional investment; there's an amplitude to the picture and the sensibility bringing it to us, something besides the whodunit and the endless rap sheet of nasty what-they-done. Everything in Street Kings is one-note, and with Keanu Reeves playing it implosive and Forest Whitaker locked in crazier-than-an-outhouse-rat mode, that's no way to stay the course. --Richard T. Jameson
Beyond Steet Kings on DVD Stills from Street Kings (Click for larger image)