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Street Kings

"The Shield" for the People with ADD

For his second effort as director, David Ayer (Harsh Times) decided to return to modern-day Los Angeles, police corruption and vigilante justice with Street Kings, a formulaic, convoluted, if no less action-packed, crime drama featuring a surprisingly convincing turn by Keanu Reeves (Constantine, The Matrix trilogy, Speed). Even though Ayer didn’t write Street Kings, it fits easily into his rapidly expanding oeuvre of violence-obsessed male characters confronted with conflicting loyalties and life-or-death moral dilemmas.

Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves), an undercover vice officer with the LAPD led by Captain Jack Wander (Forest Whitaker), his former mentor, doesn’t just bend the law when he sees a wrong that needs to be righted, he breaks the law for what he believes is a higher good. Wander gives Ludlow free reign to use whatever means are necessary to rid the Los Angeles streets of hardcore, violent criminals. Ludlow’s latest task, saving two kidnapped girls, ends in a hail of gunfire, bloodied corpses, and a news crew lauding his heroism. Ludlow, however, has a serious drinking problem, compounded by the recent loss of his wife and an ex-partner, Terrence Washington (Terry Crews), who may be informing on Ludlow and the unit to an Internal Affairs officer, James Biggs (Hugh Laurie).

When Washington dies in a grocery store robbery, apparently the victim of a drug-related hit with Ludlow only a few feet away, Wander puts Ludlow on desk duty, processing citizen complaints against the LAPD. But questions surrounding Washington’s death continue to haunt Ludlow. Ludlow convinces the junior detective, Detective Paul Diskant (Chris Evans), assigned to the murder investigation to let him help find Washington’s killers. Once Ludlow gets a lead on the hired killers, nothing, not even Captain Wander’s plea to stay clear of the investigation, can stop him from pursuing the evidence wherever it may lead him.

Ten or even fifteen years ago, Street Kings would have been considered a thought-provoking film challenging what we know and think about law enforcement. Watching the film, now, though, and the result is the opposite. A corrupt vice squad (and, presumably, police department) working outside the law, meting out often illegal justice, can be traced back to the Dirty Harry franchise and, of course, Ellroy's hardboiled-noir novels set in the late 40s and the 50s.

Street Kings may be predictable, but it has Ayer’s stripped-down, well-paced direction to lift it up above other tired and clichéd genre entries. The film also has a strong ensemble cast, featuring strong performances by Forest Whitaker, Hugh Laurie, Chris Evans, and Keanu Reeves. Now in his forties, Reeves’ has lost the pretty boy sheen he once had; he’s gained weight, and with that, he’s gained a self-assurance missing from earlier roles. While Reeves will never get nominated for an Academy Award (subtlety and nuance aren’t in his repertoire as an actor), he gives a surprisingly persuasive performance as the fatally compromised (and none-too-bright) Ludlow. On a side note, despite what the marketing indicates, however, rappers Common (American Gangster, Smokin’ Aces) and The Game are only in one scene and two scenes, respectively. Common does the most with the minimal screen time he gets, showing the potential to take on more challenging acting roles.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars