Once again Keanu Reeves is battling evil. This time though instead of fighting foes in the underworld or in the Matrix he’s on the more mortal plane of LA’s mean streets. He’s Tom Ludlow a veteran LAPD cop who isn’t above bending or actually twisting and mutilating the rules to get his own brand of vigilante justice. His boss, Captain Jack Wander (Forest Whitaker), calls him “the tip of the spear,” the only man on the force who can “hold back the animals.” A more objective observer might call him a sociopath with a badge.
In a violent story thick with double-crosses and deep-rooted duplicity Reeves, the alcoholic trigger-happy cop, is the closest thing to a hero the movie offers up. He begins his journey into the abyss when evidence implicates him in the execution of his former partner. To get to clear his name he goes head-to-head with the cop culture he’s been a part of his entire career.
Street Kings returns to a favorite topic of screenwriter James Ellroy and director by David Ayer—police corruption in Los Angeles. They’ve both examined the topic before. Ellroy most notably in LA Confidential and the novel White Jazz, set to hit the screen in 2009, and Ayer’s dirty-cop screenplay for Training Day earned Denzel Washington a Best Actor Oscar, but rarely has the subject been so savagely presented. The corruption on display here is pervasive. It’s everywhere and everyone has dirty hands.
Bleak though the story may be, the film rockets along, bounding from one violent scene to the next, rarely pausing to catch its breath. That’s probably a good thing because there are logic holes in the story big enough to drive a squad car through. It’s what Alfred Hitchcock used to call a “refrigerator movie.” It seems to make sense while you’re watching it, but later, when you’re at home in front of the fridge looking for a snack and thinking about the story you realize it doesn’t really hold together.
Better than the improbable plot twists (and melodramatic ending) are the characters that populate the story. Writers Ellroy, Kurt Wimmer and Jamie Moss circle around the usual cop clichés but manage to avoid repeating too many of the same crooked cop chestnuts we’ve seen before. Their “shoot first, ask questions later” cop characters are well written, with sharp dialogue and swagger to spare. The same can’t be said about the female characters who are relegated to the girlfriend and weepy widow roles.
Street Kings shows the side of Los Angeles you don’t see in movies very often. It’s the LA of the Rodney King video and the Rampart Scandal. It’s a gritty, violent film that succeeds despite a lack of logic and touches of melodrama because of its colorful characters and adrenaline fueled pacing.