“Street Kings” is the same old story of the corrupting influence of power and authority, but then, it probably wouldn’t be the same old story if it didn’t keep happening over and over throughout history, so it’s probably best repeated from time to time. Of course, since there’s nothing quite so sexy as corruption, the people exploiting that truth are really trying to have their cake and eat it, too, using the inherent appeal of the darker side of human nature to hook the audience. The bargain is the audience gets the entertainment and in return they sit through the creator’s lesson on the deeper truths of the human condition; the peril is that the filmmakers just use it as an excuse to appeal to their audience baser instincts like gladiators in an arena. So which one is “Street Kings?”
A little of both, but overall it’s not bad, mainly because of the steady hand of a couple of L.A. cop films (which really has become a genre unto itself) behind the camera. Director David Ayer and crime novelist James Ellroy have cooked up a parable of the dangers of corruption that offers up exactly what you would expect from the writer of “Training Day” and “L.A. Confidential.” Not surprisingly, it’s also deeply cynical about the nature of authority and human institutions, and particularly about the police department.
Violent and unrelenting, Tom Ludlow is ‘a missile, you just point him in the direction you want him to go, and release,’ according to his boss, Vice Squad Captain Jack Wander (Forest Whitaker), and that about sums him up. He doesn’t think about what he’s doing to the world, he can’t, it’s the only way he can do what he does. It’s no surprise then that when he finally is forced to confront the consequences of actions when his ex-partner turned I.A. informant dies in a convenience store hold up gone wrong the cracks in his world start to appear.
Reeves is actually fine in the role, not great but he gets the job done, scenes where he bewails his recently deceased wife being the hardest to labor through. It helps that Ludlow is such a physical person, that sort of non-speaking physical acting plays to Reeves’ strengths, and for the first time some his own natural intelligence and force of personality actually manages to make it to the screen, though that could just be a natural result of age and experience.
In fact, Reeves has been around the block enough now that he cedes the young turk role to “Fantastic Four’s” Chris Evans as an up and coming homicide detective and ‘gunfighter,’ retreating into the role of the cynical older partner and mentor. It’s a strange fit for Reeves but he actually pulls it off. It helps that he has some excellent support in the form of Forest Whitaker and Hugh Laurie as opposing Captains, playing tug of war for Tom’s soul. It goes without saying that every scene they appear in is a level above the rest of the film. Whitaker in particular often seems to be channeling “Training Day’s” Detective Alonzo, but that is more of a symptom of “Street King’s” greater problem.
The ground the filmmakers are covering is very old hat to them, which means they bring all the expertise born of familiarity, but it also means there is a lot of cribbing from previous works at play and anyone at all familiar with Ayer and Ellroy’s bibliography could get very bored, very fast. There is absolutely nothing new at play in “Street Kings.” The problem with familiarity is that it also breeds contempt and while it would be going too far to suggest that is a problem here, it is very difficult to pay attention to what they want to say, when it’s been said before and recently. It’s one thing to return to important themes in order to keep them current and relevant; it’s another to mill them into grist because there are no other tricks in the bag or some sort of myopic single interest.
Still, as corrupt cop films go, “Street Kings” has got its moments, and if nothing else it certainly does entertain. It’s a bit pat and has feelings of having been done before, but it is at least expertly done repetition and there is something to be said for that.