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Review

Reeves mediocre in predictable police drama ‘Street Kings’

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April 16, 2008

Let’s not kid ourselves, the Golden Age is dead, killed by a tide of in-your-face disillusionment. This perpetual state of cynicism has given rise to a society that’s the product of a self-fulfilling prophecy: a state of affairs defined by the very same fictionalized images of adulterous politics and treasonous law affairs it purports.

“Street Kings” attempts to blaze its own trail through this urban doom and gloom, but finds the territory already worn out, riding into the ground the very horse it is beating to death with street-preached grimy sermons on crooked back-alley justice.

Revisionist cinema this is not; screenwriter James Ellroy succumbs to peer pressure, releasing an anguished sigh as he writes to the realization that if he can’t beat ‘em, he may as well join ‘em.

Self-loathing L.A. detective Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves) frequents the shadowy fringes of the law, taking his personal brand of street justice to near vigilante proportions. Protected by his captain (Forest Whitaker), Ludlow begrudgingly trudges between the seams of legality, eliminating common street thugs and gang bangers before burying his means-to-an-end in red tape.

In the wake of his wife’s death, Ludlow finds it harder to ignore the skeletons in his closet, questioning the morality of the ghosts he’s created. After being implicated in the gang-style execution of a fellow officer, Ludlow takes a stand against the same force that has protected him his whole life.

I suppose this tired, fortune cookie set up could lead somewhere refreshingly original, but there is no pot o’ gold at the end of this rainbow—just an action-packed Cracker Jack prize that is kind of fun to play with for a little while, but ultimately forgettable.

And therein lies the pure consumeristic essence of “Street Kings:” build a cheap foundation on sleight of hand flash and hollow panache, silhouette it in a dirty neon glow, and weave it all together into a cheap distraction aimed at keeping your mind off of the empty shell that has been handed to you. 

Director David Ayer would have you believe that his nitty-gritty is really an exposé on police corruption—a hard-hitting docudrama of sorts, with tough-as-nails emotion to boot. But any sense of absolution the film might strive for is buried in an undergrowth of overt racism and falsified mockery, culminating in an ending that is borderline insulting. 

Reeves tries his best, sliding in a decent enough hand as the tormented demon-saint of the streets, getting better at warbling out the weary hero role each time he takes one on. But by the time the credits roll, his weariness is the only thing driving the engine. 

Blood-spattered action is what the film does best, and it is what the film should be appreciated and remembered for. Ellroy and Ayer script the philosophical question: “Are there any square cops anymore—or is everyone just out to get theirs?”  The answer is obvious, and the filmmakers are cashing in on, and perpetuating, a broken public trust.

Ken Weigend is an alumnus of UW-River Falls. He was editor of the Student Voice during spring semester 2010.