Film noir's past, present duke it out in the 'Street'

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What happens when you pair gritty crime novel king James Ellroy with a director, David Ayer, who grew up on the streets of South Central Los Angeles? A fresh take on film noir, the makers of Fox Searchlight's "Street Kings" say.

Fox is no stranger to film noir. In the 1940s and '50s, the studio churned out such black-and-white crime dramas as "Laura" and "Pick Up on South Street" that delved into the world of moral ambiguity, sexual obsession and people trapped in unwanted situations.

So it's not surprising that film noir fan and Searchlight president Peter Rice would want to channel those "gritty, tough cop movies" into a modern-day crime thriller.

There are certain elements that establish a film noir, regardless of which decade it belongs to. There's the landscape of the film -- the back alleys, lonely bars and abandoned warehouses -- and a story line that includes a host of colorful characters.

So how does "Street Kings" match up?

Ellroy ("L.A. Confidential"), working on the screenplay with Kurt Wimmer and Jamie Moss, weaves a tale of veteran LAPD cop Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves), a broken man still mourning the death of his wife who deals with life by downing airplane-size bottles of booze. He's a guy who's neither a hero nor a villain but rather one whose burden it is to clean up the mean streets of Los Angeles by any means necessary. (Anti-hero, alcoholic cop? Check.)

Ludlow, in investigating the killing of his former partner, dives into the familiar world of gangsters and police corruption. (Trapped in a web of deceit where it seems there's no hope? Check.)

Then, there are the familiar favorites modernized. Gone are the slimy, weasel gangsters; they are replaced by street gangsters sporting flannels, baggy shorts and knee-high white socks. Instead of the aging gangster, there's the aging police captain and mentor (Forest Whitaker) as well as the naive rookie cop (Chris Evans) begrudgingly taken under Ludlow's wing. Instead of a mousy snitch, there's a wannabe pimp (Cedric the Entertainer) to rat out the bad guys. And it wouldn't be a crime thriller without a couple of broads: Ludlow's girlfriend, Grace (Martha Higareda), a nurse who patches him up when he's hurt, and the vulnerable widow (Naomie Harris) of Ludlow's murdered partner.

On the visual side, film noir junkies will have to put away their checklist. Helmer Ayer, the "Training Day" screenwriter who made his directorial debut with 2005's "Harsh Times," looked to his own backyard and departed from the usual "saturated grimy" crime-thriller look.

"I wanted to go with really bright colors," he says, adding that it was the best way to capture the vibrant life of even the grittiest areas of the city.

Using top-quality lenses and filming on Super 35 Kodak stock, Ayer did take a page from classic film noir by shooting most of the movie outside, on location, in dark alleys, blighted neighborhoods and abandoned downtown streets.

"For me, I was working from the inside out as opposed to the outside in," Ayer says of the Los Angeles landscape. "Every location has a social meaning. It has a logic. It's not something that was found in a location scout's book."

Whether "Street Kings," which opens Friday, will resonate with noir fans remains to be seen. Rice seems confident the film has kept to the true themes of the genre.

"It is a talent to have this sort of noir crime movie that is so contemporary and unique in its own way," he says. "It's a story that's familiar but told in a fresh way."
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