Friday, April 11, 2008

Street Kings: Dethroned

Street Kings (2008) • View trailer for Street Kings
Two stars (out of five). Rating: R, for pervasive violence and profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.11.08
Buy DVD: Street Kings • Buy Blu-Ray: Street Kings (+ Digital Copy) [Blu-ray]

Street Kings is a movie for folks who thought the characters in 2001's Training Day were too genteel.
Santos (Amaury Nolasco, left) and Demille (John Corbett, right) are visibly
disappointed that their partner, Ludlow (Keanu Reeves), has left them nobody
to kill, in a typical scene from this tawdry cop flick. And let us remember:
These are the good guys. Don't you feel safer?

If Joseph Wambaugh has devoted his career to exploring the psyches of flawed but noble police officers, James Ellroy has been much more intrigued by the unredeemable corruption of those granted the privileges that come with a badge. Both novelists wonder whether inherently decent men can survive a polluted system with their integrity intact: Wambaugh generally holds out hope, whereas Ellroy obviously has none whatsoever.

Factor in a director — David Ayer — who views South Central Los Angeles as a war zone, and the result is quite bleak and distasteful.

But even that would be tolerable, if Ayer were willing to explore the topic with any degree of credibility. Alas, Street Kings isn't drama; it's overwrought burlesque, littered with giggling psychopaths on both sides of the equation. These characters shoot first and don't bother with the questions.

We got a taste of the Ayer/ Ellroy mentality with 2002's Dark Blue, an equally ludicrous tale of bent cops gone from bad to worse. Apparently determined to sully the LAPD badge even further, we're once again thrown onto these mean streets, expected (as viewers) to buy into macho nonsense where vile cops are so far gone that they don't even watch out for each other.

On top of which, Ayer is a lousy director. His film has no sense of time and place; the action within this story might be unfolding within hours, days or even weeks. He extracts truly dreadful and overwrought performances from just about everybody in the cast; every line of hard-bitten dialogue emerges from teeth so firmly clenched that the actors must worry about long-term lockjaw.

Indeed, Ayer manages the impossible: He makes Forest Whitaker look and sound like a bad actor.

Goodness, Whitaker even managed to escape from Vantage Point with his integrity intact, and that film's also a mess. Here, though, his line readings are shrill and hysterical, his eyes literally popping out of his skull; he looks for all the world like a junkie in desperate need of his next fix.

And we're supposed to accept Whitaker as a police captain on the rise, with visions of being anointed LAPD's master chief?


But if just about everybody in this cast overacts, one individual — our star and protagonist — remains his usual, stone-faced self.

Cue Keanu Reeves, as veteran officer Tom Ludlow, once again demonstrating a thespic range that can't quite stretch from A to B. He plays every single scene with the same absence of expression or emotion, giving us absolutely no clue as to what thoughts might be coursing through his character's brain. That sort of laughable uber-cool might have been appropriate for the Matrix series, but it doesn't play here.

This particular character requires an actor with chops, who can convey his gradual realization that All Is Not Well, and his comprehension that serving as judge, jury and executioner has gotten out of hand. Ludlow needs to be a man of tortured uncertainty; we must see and believe in the epiphany that turns his head around.

Fat chance. This story never provides an epiphany moment, and Reeves couldn't sell such subtlety or character complexity if he went door-to-door. He is, let me be frank, a bad actor who has coasted on an undeserved reputation far longer than I'd have thought possible. He brings nothing to the party; his presence here fails to destroy the film only because it's not all that good in the first place.

Ayer signals his artistic intentions by opening Street Kings with a prologue of sorts, as Ludlow ambushes a quartet of Korean nasties who've kidnapped young twin girls in order to star them in kiddie porn videos. When the dust settles, the score stands at four baddies blown to smithereens, which Ludlow has accomplished all by his lonesome. And he only gets mildly grazed in the process.

When subsequently patched up by his sorta-ladyfriend, Grace (Martha Higareda), we halfway expect him to smile and say, "Shucks, ma'am, ain't nothin' but a flesh wound."

Ah, but no: Reeves couldn't manage that much charm.

Ludlow, it turns out, is the longtime point man for an elite squad led by Capt. Jack Wander (Whitaker), who has his eyes on the aforementioned promotion; Ludlow's rescue of the two girls looks to generate the positive media buzz that might whisk Wander into the big dog's chair.

But our protagonist's position as Wander's go-to guy is viewed with obvious jealousy by the other members of the team, every one of whom looks and acts too unstable to be trusted with heavy weaponry: Mike Clady (Jay Mohr), Dante Demille (John Corbett) and Cosmos Santos (Amaury Nolasco). These clowns turn verbal vulgarity into the sort of reflexive act we'd expect from a bad teen sex comedy.

The story then settles into its central plot, as Ludlow is led to believe that his former partner, Terrence Washington (Terry Crews), is ratting him out to Internal Affairs, in the form of the waspish Capt. James Biggs (the badly miscast Hugh Laurie). Soon thereafter, Washington is cut down in an outrageous hail of heavy-caliber gunfire — and the notion that his body would be left in one piece is beyond ridiculous, even for this movie — with Ludlow inappropriately at the scene.

But "We've gotcher back," promises Wander and the rest of the team, so Ludlow should be able to relax. But he can't: Against all odds, a savvy investigator lurks somewhere within his diseased soul, and too many questions keep popping up. Improbably enlisting the aid of rookie detective Paul Diskant (Chris Evans), Ludlow stubbornly works to get to the bottom of Washington's slaying, and what might really have led to it.

Aside from Grace, who serves as no more than an adornment — the film even finds a flimsy excuse to slip her into a wet bikini — Diskant is this story's only truly sympathetic character. So you can imagine what's in store for him.

And that, aside from the lousy acting and unimaginative directing, is my primary objection to this tawdry flick: Everything in the story is inevitable. The deaths are telegraphed, the plot twists are obvious, and the identity of the "bad guy at the top" wouldn't be a surprise to a 5-year-old (not that a child should be allowed anywhere near this picture).

As a novelist, Ellroy is known for his densely layered plots and equally complex — if frequently unpalatable — characters. Why can't he write a screenplay that way?

I find it increasingly difficult to believe that this is the guy who wrote the novel on which the superlative L.A. Confidential was based. Ah, but Ellroy had nothing to do with that screenplay (an important distinction).

And here's a bewildering note: Ayer repeatedly undercuts his film's already thin credibility with a series of truly bad casting decisions. We simply can't see Laurie without thinking of his starring role on TV's House; that image may fade with time, but for the moment he prompts unintentional laughter every time he talks tough as Capt. Biggs.

Cedric the Entertainer tries to play it straight as a mid- level street thug, and doesn't succeed — more unintentional laughter — while rap stars Common and The Game are inserted, one assumes cynically, to lure younger viewers.

Ayer and Ellroy may intend Street Kings to be a Big Statement on moral ambiguity — the price that should be paid for the greater good, and at whose expense — but the film has the half-jokey atmosphere and two-dimensional characters of an average-to-poor horror flick with disposable victims.

Hardly an appropriate vehicle for exploring society's ills.

But, then, Reeves couldn't have sold a more persuasively authentic story even if Street Kings had been such a film, so it really doesn't matter.

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