EmptyL.A.'s mean streets get meaner than ever in "Street Kings," and little wonder considering its pedigree. The film is directed by David Ayer, who penned the dirty-cop movie "Training Day," and based on a script largely written by L.A.'s mad-dog crime novelist/moralist James Ellroy.
We are all bad people, says LAPD vice Capt. Jack Wander (Forest Whitaker). Indeed, "Kings" is filled with bad people, bad cops and one almost absurdly idealistic cop, Keanu Reeves' Detective Tom Ludlow, who nevertheless breaks rule and heads without a moment's hesitation. "Kings" covers familiar territory but does so with ruthless efficiency, intense performances and a densely packed plot designed to highlight the moral issues that most concern Ayer and Ellroy.
"Kings" has solid boxoffice potential, especially for males of all ages. Plus, the film has one of Reeves' best performances: concentrated, grave, a little sad and more than a little demented.
Since his wife's sudden death in sordid circumstances, Tom is a vice cop living on the edge. He vomits to begin his day, then tools around the city with airline vodka bottles in his car to keep him stoked and fearless. In the film's opening sequence, he takes down four vicious kidnappers to rescue two girls, thus announcing a guy who knows how to bend rules to get scum off the streets.
The rescue makes his boss look good, too, so Capt. Wander gets promoted, but not before Internal Affairs Capt. James Biggs (Hugh Laurie) lets both men know he's got his eye on them. More worrying is that Tom's former partner, Terrence Washington (Terry Crews), might have gone to IA about some of the more troubling incidents of their time together.
When Washington is assassinated, Tom is implicated. But Wander and all the men in his unit keep telling Tom they've got his back. As much as he despised his former partner, Tom is enraged by his death. He joins the detective investigating the murder, Paul Diskant (Chris Evans), to track down his killers. That investigation leads Tom into his own personal heart of darkness.
All genre requirements are here: a colorful cast of characters, swaggering machismo, sharp dialogue and a rainbow of ethnicity spread across the divide of good and evil. Plot twists are smart if improbable. Cop culture gets a particularly savage skewering here, though the portrait of LAPD's old boys feels dated, harking back to before the Rodney King and Rampart division scandals.
The script by Ellroy, Kurt Wimmer and Jamie Moss keeps the action at a feverish pitch. Tom is a bulldog that doesn't know when to quit; nothing anyone says can stop his forward propulsion. Ayer shoots in gritty L.A. neighborhoods with a dark, smudged palette. A chase scene between detectives and a perp through alleys, backyards, living rooms, over fences and roofs makes striking use of one neighborhood. It also shows off what's best about "Kings": fast action combined with rock-solid characters.
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Fox Searchlight and Regency Enterprises present a 3 Arts Entertainment production
Director: David Ayer
Screenwriters: James Ellroy, Kurt Wimmer, Jamie Moss
Story: James Ellroy
Producers: Erwin Stoff, Alexandra Milchan, Lucas Foster
Executive producers: Arnon Milchan, Michele Weisler, Bob Yari
Director of photography: Gabriel Beristain
Production designer: Alec Hammond
Music: Graeme Revell
Costume designer: Michele Michel
Editor: Jeffrey Ford
Tom Ludlow: Keanu Reeves
Capt. Wander: Forest Whitaker
Capt. Biggs: Hugh Laurie
Detective Diskant: Chris Evans
Scribble: Cedric "The Entertainer" Kyles
Sgt. Clady: Jay Mohr
Detective Washington: Terry Crews
Linda Washington: Naomie Harris
Running time -- 109 minutes
MPAA rating: R