There have been a lot of movies featuring the LAPD, police corruption, racial tension and one rogue, heroic super-cop with the arrogant insistence on beating the system. You might think “Street Kings” – a crime caper featuring all of these things from the writer of “L.A. Confidential” – is just another ho-hum police drama, with all the ingenuity of a random episode of “24” circa Season 4. You’d be mostly right, but the film does manage to entertain despite its tired premise thanks to a few decent performances and a hell of a lot of shooting.
Keanu Reeves plays Tom Ludlow, an undercover LAPD detective who’s going through a tough time because of the recent passing of his wife. He’s still a very talented agent though, so his superior, Capt. Wander (Forest Whitaker, “The Last King of Scotland”), covers up for Ludlow’s missteps, which include drinking on the job, shooting criminals instead of handcuffing them and (possibly) being a racist.
Ludlow’s old partner, however, is troubled by his transgressions and calls on internal affairs to investigate Wander’s whole unit. And then the partner ends up dead – really, really dead. Like, 17-rounds-from-a-machine-gun dead. While Ludlow never liked the guy, his death presents a problem: Ludlow was at the scene of the crime and really doesn’t have an explanation as to why he couldn’t intervene. With the entire system bearing down on him, Ludlow decides the only solution is to find the true murderers, even if it means going beyond the law.
The dark, troubled-hero vibes Reeves gives off are perfect for a film that explores the nature of good and bad in situations where such clear-cut distinctions are impossible. Still, it wouldn’t be Keanu Reeves without stilted motions and incessant mumbling, both of which are very frustrating in an action hero. Luckily, Reeves has a superb supporting cast, all of whom are as good as you’ve ever known them to be.
The two stars are Whitaker as Wander and Chris Evans (“Fantastic Four”) as Detective Diskant, Ludlow’s unlikely partner on the murder investigation. Evans – who was entirely responsible for the only 90 seconds of decent material in both “Fantastic Four” films combined – plays a clean-cut, emotionally stable cop and is a welcome diversion from the film’s mostly grim and often asininely hard-boiled characters. (Even comedians Jay Mohr and Cedric the Entertainer are given roles that involve something other than comic relief).
The Capt. Wander character, while stock and uninspired in conception, becomes something truly memorable thanks to Whitaker’s underhanded ferocity. The man who won an Oscar for his portrayal of crazed Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, Whitaker proves once again that he can exude emotional hyperbole more masterfully and convincingly than just about any other actor.
His talent is for taking the extreme and presenting it in such a creepily calm way that viewers are left entranced. That’s exactly what he does here, adding levels of depth and context to Wander that won’t be soon forgotten by those who pay attention. Wander’s simple line, “We’re all bad, Tom” is the film’s thematic climax and delivers a poignant blow in a narrative that, though stocked with plenty of guns and action, otherwise lacks substance.
At some point while watching “Street Kings,” you have to wonder why it goes so far overboard on the gruesome, detailed gun violence. While many viewers jump at the chance to see some of their favorite actors wield some of the biggest guns imaginable, it can easily get disturbing (The Game with a machine gun? That could get ugly). We could sit back and demand a smarter crime caper, but realistically, it’s probably time we just accept that no one is going to redefine this genre. Guns, guns and bigger guns – this is what we’ve got, and “Street Kings” does it better than most.
Rating:3 out of 5 stars
At Quality 16 and Showcase