It’s possible – for all I know, in my London-bound existence – that the Los Angeles police department is rife with corruption, steeped knee-deep in murder, bribery, drug-dealing and torture. Or it could be rather nearer to Joseph Wambaugh’s vision – of a post-Rodney King municipal department so hamstrung by watchdogs and directives that it has no time to do anything but fill out reports and tick the boxes that Arnie wants ticked.
Either way, Street Kings feels like an early nineties movie, and not in a good way.
Keanu Reeves plays Tom Ludlow, a pragmatic, vodka-chugging cop who shoots first and tells lies later, all for the public good. He’s a widower too, playing out his impotence at the death of his unfaithful wife in nine-millimetre shells and a bruiseless form of torture that involves a telephone directory.
When Reeves wastes some very nasty kiddie-porn film-makers and rescues the twin girls they had kidnapped, he is saved customarily by his old mentor and guru, Captain Wander – played by Forest Whitaker – who performs his usual PR buff-up to hide the bullet-holes and rearrange the facts.
But by now ace Internal Affairs investigator Captain James Biggs – played well by Hugh Laurie, if with the same tenuous hold on an American accent as he demonstrates weekly in House – is hot on his trail, as is Reeves’ ex-police partner Washington (Terry Crews), now reformed from his own corruption and determined to shop his old homey to the burn squad. As I believe they say.
Already operating under general suspicion, Reeves’ unfortunate presence at the murder of a fellow officer in a drug store hold-up threatens to chip away at the three coats of gloss that hide his unorthodox methods from the papers, and Whitaker decides it’s time for the renegade to ride a desk for a bit while the dust settles.
Languishing in the deathly routine of the police complaints office, Reeves meets Detective Diskant (a lean and rather down-at-heel Chris Evans), one of the investigators enlisted by Whitaker to ensure that the Boy Wonder emerges from the drug-store incident squeaky-clean. For reasons that may not convince (they didn’t convince me), Reeves persuades Evans to buddy-up and go in search of the very killers whose apprehension could spell his own imprisonment…
Street Kings – which has a far grittier name than its derivative plotting deserves – is a collaboration between legendary detective-thriller scribe James Ellroy, and Ultraviolet writer Kurt Wimmer, along with newcomer Jamie Moss. Therefore if it retreads L.A. Confidential – albeit with considerably less skill – and presents us with the hackneyed ‘haunted cop’ central protagonist, it has a measure of licence to do so, since Ellroy’s personal history is unusually invested in what is otherwise a mere cliché, and since he wrote L.A. Confidential. But it doesn’t have unlimited licence to roll out all of Confidential’s tricks and turn-ups; it does so anyway.
The middle-section, where Reeves and Evans are on the trail of the killers, is patently a rogues’ gallery of reluctant informers, as the not-so-unlikely buddies get nearer to their cop-killers, one witness at a time. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the opportunity to paint interesting pictures of the beleaguered underworld of urban California is wasted on a series of templated thugs, and leavened only by the brief appearance of Cedric The Entertainer as ‘Scribble’, a slightly-nicer thug.
With Ellroy involved, you can be sure of some great hard-boiled humour, but this is liberally spattered in the first forty-five minutes and then dries up in favour of often-embarrassing oratory and epithets, and it’s not nearly dazzling enough to stop you seeing the major plot-points approaching like jet airliners in the distance.
Some of the laughs are unintentional too, as when Reeves offers the drug-store cop’s widow a copy of the footage that shows her husband being mown down with machine guns, apparently with the idea that it might help her get closure. The absurdly predictable denouement also inspired some giggling among the review audience.
It’s a shame, because cast and crew are capable of better things; Reeves has a limited but effective box of acting tricks, but there’s nothing in there that was ever going to suggest the force of vengeance that is Tom Ludlow, and he autopilots the part. Forest Whitaker ably acquits himself in a stock role, while Chris Evans continues to show a depth and commitment that – in this case – proves surplus to requirements.
On the plus side, the low-rent locations and ghastly smog of L.A. are well-captured in Street Kings, which has a very effective score by Graeme Revell, and also some of the most frighteningly authentic gunshot sound-effects I’ve ever heard. The violence is harsh and frequent, but often cut short either for taste or a broader audience-rating.
But this was all done infinitely better in Ron Shelton’s Dark Blue (2002), which was adapted by Street Kings director David Ayer (again, from James Ellroy material). Kings is a dirty-cop yarn too far, and can redeem itself with neither the insightful character studies and black humour of L.A. Confidential, nor the world-weary ennui and topicality of Dark Blue.
Street Kings is on general UK release from 18th April