Playing good cop or bad cop makes for bad movie
The alarm clock buzzes. Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves) wakes up fully dressed in a striped shirt, raises his gun and rolls out of bed. He puts his piece on the bathroom sink, next to his toothbrush, and takes a good long look at himself in the mirror. Then he pukes in the toilet. He climbs into the car and heads down the freeway as a glowing orange orb shimmers behind the skyscrapers of Los Angeles. Only the sun isn’t rising. It’s setting.
Night: Koreatown. Ludlow stops by a liquor store and gulps down a couple of teeny airline bottles of vodka. He insults some Korean hoods, who want to buy a machine gun he’s got stashed in his trunk, insinuating that they’re Japanese. "You dress white, talk black and drive Jew," he tells them before throwing in an all-purpose anti-Asian slur.
Ludlow is a racist cop, a renegade cop, a vigilante cop. We know this because next he wantonly massacres a bunch of Korean bad guys and makes it look like they shot one another. Then, when he’s confronted by his African-American ex-partner, Terrence Washington (Terry Crews), he yells, "I’m racist!"
This is the setup for "Street Kings," which immediately forgets it ever brought up all that racial stuff anyway. Almost as quickly, it loses interest in its main character’s alcoholism. Then it raises the idea that Ludlow may still be in pain over his wife’s death, but instantly ignores that, too, turning its deficit of attention to the killing of a police officer. The murder investigation leads the bull-headed Ludlow — who, mind you, does not play by the rules — along a twisted trail of corruption that leads all the way to the highest levels of the LAPD. Yeah, I know. Who could have anticipated that?
If you wanted to make a strictly generic parody of crime writer James Ellroy’s hard-boiled Southland fiction ("L.A. Confidential," "The Black Dahlia," "White Jazz"), could you do worse than to hire Ellroy himself and then, maybe, re-write him a few times? Maybe not, because that’s what appears to have happened here. Ellroy is credited with the template-stamped story and is listed first in the screenplay credits, followed by Kurt Wimmer and Jamie Moss, each of their names separated by an "and" instead of an ampersand, which tells you that they did not work together.
"Street Kings" is an anemic attempt to evoke the big, shiny action pictures of the late ’80s and early ’90s, the heyday of Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, when Timothy Dalton was 007 and Clint Eastwood had fewer wrinkles and bigger hair. Back when, if an aquarium appeared in a scene, somebody was darn sure going to shoot it before the movie was over.
Reeves got in on that wave, too, with "Point Break" and "Speed," dodging bullets and breaking regulations in the name of the law. Those were the days when overkill was never enough, and "Street Kings" at least gets that part right. The crooked cops are not only crooked, they’re also murderers willing to drop everything to rape their victims’ widows and girlfriends just for fun. They are bad, bad, bad.
Sophomore director David Ayer ("Harsh Times") is invested in the chases and shootouts, but sometimes his spatial relationships break down, and you can’t tell who is where. In one gunfight, an entire Harvest Gold-colored refrigerator materializes out of nowhere. Meanwhile, Academy-Award winner Forest Whitaker doesn’t seem to know what movie this should be, while "House" star Hugh Laurie — giving exactly the same performance he does on TV — may be in on the joke, even if nobody else is.
Classified R for strong violence and pervasive language. Rating: One and a half stars.
Jim Emerson is editor of the Web site rogerebert.com.