David Ayer is facing the possibility of type-casting himself. This will be his fifth screenplay in a row dealing with law enforcement corruption and he will be hard pressed to continue to pump out the same movie over and over again without adding anything new and interesting to the mix. The first of the films, the magnificentTraining Day, was so brutal and original that it remains a modern day classic. Denzel Washington was perfect as the corrupt cop who fought for both the elimination of the criminal element as well as the padding of his own pocketbook. Ethan Hawke, as the wide-eyed partner who would end up being the downfall of Washington, added something that was fresh and unique to the proceedings. Unfortunately, what was once cutting edge is now cliché thanks to both the solid work of Ayer’s and the success of the television show The Shield.
While Ayer has tried to add some unique touches to his plots, the stories still remain the same. In Street Kings, Keanu Reeves portrays Detective Tom Ludlow, a police officer that bears a strong resemblance to Vic Mackey from The Shield. He is a good cop, but one that will stoop to any level to seek vengeance against criminals. The movie starts off with a bang and no room to breathe as Tom hunts down men who have kidnapped twin fourteen year old girls. He bursts in on the men unaware and then brutally murders them, saving the girls’ lives in the process. Working with his commanding officer, Captain Jack Wander (Whitaker), the two cover up the brutality of the murders and make Tom look like a hero. We also meet the other members of Tom’s unit, which bear a close resemblance to the Strike Force, once again from The Shield.
As you can see, my problem lies in the originality of the setup for the movie. Understand that The Shield itself is based on a true-to-life Rampart Division of the LAPD which implicated over 70 police officers with wrongdoings including being responsible for the drive-by shooting of the Notorious B.I.G. With that said, you really can’t condemn one movie for unoriginality when the events are based on a true story. By the end of the movie, I decided Street Kings was less a re-telling of the familiar story from the television series, and more of the story of someone on the outside looking in.
Tom is a bad cop, in so far as he will go to any lengths to bring down the criminals. However, he is not a thief and the only people he hurts are criminals who deserve it. Throughout the movie we see people doing much worse things than Tom, but he is still the focus of attention to the Internal Affairs Division, and their lead man Captain James Biggs (Laurie). The first appearance of Biggs threw me for a loop since he introduced himself to Tom in the confines of a hospital, and I don’t think that was a coincidence. As a result, I thought of House the entire time I saw him onscreen. Luckily, Laurie proved he is more than just a television star, and delivered a fine, nuanced performance as the nemesis of Tom.
The film takes a turn when it becomes apparent his ex-partner might be turning over evidence on him to I.A. When his former partner ends up dead, Tom faces a moral conflict of whether or not to allow it to be swept under the rug as most things are in his division. Members of his unit, as well as his own Captain, want things left alone but Tom can’t seem to turn his back when he knows a cop killer is on the loose. He joins up with a young detective (Evans), who knows just enough to want justice as well, in finding the men who shot down his old partner and delivering his unique form of justice
The movie was directed extremely well. Ayer has an eye for dynamic visual shots and moves the camera with great precision while setting up some spectacular visuals throughout the movie. Known primarily as a screenwriter, Ayer is progressing well as a director and this movie looks fantastic. The music was great as well. Graeme Revell, who composed the score for The Ruins, also released this month, executed a much tighter and leveled score in Street Kings. I complained that the music in The Ruins was a little over-the-top, taking away from the scares of the movie, but here it remained in the background and worked well to set the mood.
I was not sure what to expect from Keanu Reeves, but feel he executed his character well, giving him just the right touch of menace, but never feeling like he is going overboard. He gets a lot of flak for his lack of acting chops, but has provided some solid roles over his career in films such as Constantine, The Matrix and My Own Private Idaho. This is one of his more solid performances and he was not a hindrance to the story at all. His character is broken. He found out his wife was having an affair when she died, and her lover left her on a sidewalk in front of the hospital to die. He was never able to find out the name of the man, and the memory still haunts him. He is an alcoholic, seemingly suicidal man, and Reeves delivers.
Chris Evans continues to impress me in his career, and while he is not always picking the best projects to put his name to, always brings it when he steps up to the plate. He was solid once again and has the charm to be a leading man one day. The same cannot be said for Jay Mohr, who was horribly miscast as a member of the task force. He comes across poorly in all the scenes he is involved in and drags down the movie. I am a fan of Mohr, but if this is as good as he gets in action flicks, he needs to stick with comedic roles.
Finally, Forest Whitaker delivers another outstanding performance, but one as different as Lt. Jon Kavanaugh from The Shield as you could get. Ayer might have been tempted to cast him as the same type of character he played in The Shield, but was smart not to. Hugh Laurie was great in the role as the lead I.A. Investigator and Whitaker got the juicier role that he could only watch others play in The Shield. It was another instance where casting against type made the movie an even better experience. Add to the fact that Cedric the Entertainer was less annoying than usual and you have a winning combination.
Street Kings is not something you haven’t seen before, but takes the idea in an interesting direction. The acting and direction is pretty solid throughout the film and helps it rise above the similar styled procedurals that come out every couple of months. It is not the best adaptation of James Elroy, as that would be L.A. Confidential. It is not the best David Ayer film, as that would be Training Day. However, when measured on its own standards, Street Kings works well enough as an unique take on an interesting subject and is good enough to watch on any given Saturday night.