After the bleat of an alarm clock in the dark, the lights come on, and there's Sgt. Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves), asleep in his clothes. He checks his gun, gets up, gives the mirror a good long look and dry-heaves the previous night's booze.
And so begins the loftily titled Street Kings, the newest by screenwriter (L.A. Confidential) James Ellroy's sometimes collaborator David Ayer. It follows up the fraught but interesting thug-opera Harsh Times and the neglected 2002 Ayer-scripted policier Dark Blue, both of which Street Kings resembles.
After his morning puke, Ludlow gets into his fast black car to head downtown for his first stop of the day, an illegal machine gun sale out of the trunk of his car. He ingratiates himself with some thugs in Koreatown by greeting them with "Kon-ichiwa." (It's a joke I would have liked better if it went unexplained, but explained it is.)
They beat Ludlow up for this and other insults, and pinch his car; Ludlow tracks his ride to their midtown fortress, retrieves a large gun from the trunk, and ventilates the household. After the occupants are safely dead, Ludlow find a chicken-wire cage in a closet where a pair of kidnapped underage twins have been imprisoned for Internet porn. Good deed done.
Riding up with the rest of the police to congratulate the detective is Ludlow's bosom friend, protector and boss, Cmdr. Jack Wander (Forest Whitaker). Not everyone is appreciative of Ludlow's policy of not only shooting first but never asking any questions at all. Ludlow's former partner Washington (Terry Crews) has had a crisis of conscience and has been snitching to Internal Affairs.
When Ludlow spots Washington at a downtown liquor store, he is about to settle the matter, wrapping his fist up in his belt as impromptu brass knuckles just before a pair of AK-47-wielding thugs waste the place. As Ludlow draws his weapon, he accidentally shoots Washington in the shoulder (though it hardly matters, since Washington takes at least 85 bullets from the others).
But since the whole department, and especially Internal Affairs' faux-friendly James Biggs (Hugh Laurie), knew Ludlow was furious at Washington, the extra bullet looks bad. Two usual-suspect drug-runners are framed for the killing, but Washington's corpse has evidence that the cop had been reselling heroin from the LAPD's evidence stash. Ludlow decides to find out who was really responsible for the hit, with only the help of a young, honest cop Paul "Disco" Diskant (Chris Evans).
Street Kings goes back and forth between the believable and the entertaining. Whitaker's ambiguity is always a pleasure—which of those two eyes can one trust? Jay Mohr, given a mustache to make him look more insincere, plays a detective who might be in deeper than he seems. Keanu Reeves has been a movie star so long that it's no longer important whether he can act or not. He's the perfect blank pre-moral hero, looking like a smudgy photostat of Clint Eastwood.
Ayer tries his best to avoid those scenes with women because they put a break on the action, but he can't get around it. The rogue cop is tended by a helpful nurse (Martha Higareda), who is so one-dimensional she barely casts a shadow. When Ludlow visits a policeman's widow (Naomie Harris), she begs him not to take revenge on the killers. "Not in my name," she says, as if she were protesting the war in Iraq.
The arc of Ludlow's character is for desolation and destruction, and yet this movie finishes in right-wing pulp, endorsing the notion that the LAPD needs covert lawbreakers for "exigencies." But it's not the exigency of crime but the expediency of script-writing that we're dealing with here.
'Street Kings' is ubiquitous come Friday, April 11.
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