Street Kings (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Street Kings has the look and feel of an '80s cop thriller. Despite the predictability of the overall story arc, there's suspense and tension to be found between the credit sequences, but the movie is saddled with an ending that is both improbable and borderline insulting. Lead actor Keanu Reeves, who may never become a great actor, has developed enough skill over the years to pull off the role of a dirty cop who begins to grow a conscience. It helps, of course, that his supporting cast includes Forest Whitaker and Hugh Laurie. Director David Ayer, making his second feature, has a screenwriting background in cop movies (including Training Day) and co-writer James Ellory is a respected name in the crime genre. The result of this collaboration is a generally strong motion picture that implodes two minutes before it ends.

Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves) is a dirty cop, but not one who takes payoffs or sells confiscated drugs. Instead, he has appointed himself as judge, jury, and executioner and shows a blatant disregard for any law that stands between him and eliminating a bad guy. In short, he makes Dirty Harry look like a wimp. When he adds four Korean corpses to his body count, Tom finds himself under investigation by Captain Biggs (Hugh Laurie) of Internal Affairs. Things go from bad to worse when Tom's former partner and current IA snitch, Washington (Terry Crews), is gunned down in a convenience story robbery. Tom's boss (Forest Whitaker) tells him to forget about it and move on, but Tom partners with homicide detective Diskant (Chris Evans) to follow the evidence and perhaps seek his own redemption. As is often the case in movies of this sort, the trail leads deep into a web of police corruption.

For the most part, Street Kings does what any solid police thriller is supposed to do, but this one stumbles badly at the end. The last scene is so contrived and so out of synch with the rest of the film that it has the feeling of something that was tacked-on as the result of either poor test screenings or studio interference. While it's true that a bad ending can't completely wreck an otherwise competently executed motion picture, this is an example when significant damage is done. The short epilogue, in which various unlikely events occur and are revealed, undermines the entire narrative structure of Street Kings. If this is supposed to be a "twist," it's one of the worst ones of the year.

There's another issue with the writing that's more of a curiosity than a problem. As with most police movies, all of the major roles go to men. There are, however, women around in support positions: the protagonist's love interest, the widow of the dead cop, etc. Strangely, whenever one of those women has a snippet of dialogue, it's to deliver a sermon. "Be true to yourself," "Find the goodness in your heart," and so forth. It's bizarre that a movie with such hard-hitting, often profane language can occasionally turn out the kind of sentiments more likely to be found on a Hallmark card.

Aspects of the movie bear a resemblance to the Mel Gibson revenge picture Payback (a remake of Point Blank) in the way it shows a man using violent methods to make his way up the pecking order to discover the identity of his true enemy. I think the "revelation" is intended to be a surprise but it won't be one to anyone familiar with the genre. There's nothing unexpected about Street Kings's narrative; it follows a formula that has long been established. There are confrontations, shoot-outs, and a continually mounting body count. Thankfully, there are no pointless "action" sequences like car chases. The movie is smarter than that, which makes the weakness of the ending so confounding.

In a way, cop movies are like romantic comedies - they only need to do one thing and, as long as they do it well, there's no need for them to stray from the one true path. Generally speaking, Street Kings abides by that maxim. The movie has a strong enough identity to keep the feelings of déjà vu largely at bay (although Hugh Laurie's character skates a little close to Dr. House for comfort, but Hollywood loves to pigeonhole even the best actors) without going so far afield as to alienate die-hard adherents of the genre. Admittedly, one could argue that a production helmed by Ayer and co-written by Ellory should generate higher expectations and, if that's the case, they aren't met. Substitute a gutsier ending, however, and this might have been something to recommend more heartily than with a half-hearted shrug.

Street Kings (United States, 2008)

Director: David Ayer
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Forest Whitaker, Hugh Laurie, Chris Evans
Screenplay: James Ellroy and Kurt Wimmer and Jamie Moss
Cinematography: Gabriel Beristain
Music: Graeme Revell
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Run Time: 1:47
U.S. Release Date: 2008-04-11
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1