James Ellroy, great writer. Up there with the best of the best at crime thrillers, he often provides the darker, more conspiratorial alternative to Elmore Leonard, the man with a penchant for punchy dialogue a la Get Shorty, Out of Sight. Ellroy gives us clean-looking cops who are - in truth - dirty, and rule-breaking, over-the-edge Vic “The Shield” Mackey-style cops who are actually the only decent hope. There's always a conspiracy, nothing is ever as it seems, and very few characters leave the story intact. LA Confidential was a tour-de-force, but Ellroy's books are actually quite difficult to bring to the screen - it would appear - as interpretations of his other work have had mixed results. Black Dahlia was disappointing, to say the least, and Dark Blue - whilst actually quite a good movie in its own right - suffered from walking in the shadows of other similar (and superior) movies of the time, Training Day and Narc. So how does his latest, Street Kings, fare?
Detective Tom Ludlow is a mess. Bitter, beleaguered and cynical as hell, he starts his mornings coughing up blood and pouring airplane-size bottles of vodka down his throat. He's not your average cop though, he's the guy who shoots the bad guys first, then tidies up the mess later. But he's not a lone wolf, this 'Dirty Harry' has a Captain who actually sets him off on these missions, 'unofficially' authorising his tactics and, not only permitting it, but truly needing this kind of enforcer to operate within his unit. The Captain thinks he's a legend - the tip of the spear. His colleagues think he's a glory-hound racist. And Internal Affairs think he's one step away from doing a Macbeth - going so far that he can't come back. Ludlow himself is haunted by the memories of all the people he has executed, by the death of his unfaithful wife and by all the corruption and manipulation that has surrounded him and drawn him in. But when his ex-partner is gunned-down right before his eyes, he has to choose between burying the truth once again, and continuing to play the game, or setting off down the road to find the murderers - a road plagued by betrayal and death.
Street Kings is a superior thriller, easily one of the better Ellroy interpretations. Although, on paper, it doesn't seem that original (the police conspiracy thing has been done in all of the above Ellroy stories, and that's just for starters), it still feels quite fresh and new, shot in a dark, oppressive style totally in line with the material. It is held together by some tense, gripping confrontations and an interesting story arc that follows one character as his investigation uncovers more and more pieces of what turns out to be a pretty big puzzle. The movie is not without flaws - the aforementioned lack of originality being numero uno. There's also a slightly out of place montage sequence, and one major character twist that everybody in the whole world - both in and out of the movie - could see right from the get-go. Everyone, apart from our hero.
Talking of heroes, Keanu Reeves has never really been hired for his acting skills. If there's a need for a cop who has to go undercover as a surfer then Reeves is hired, and nobody could do a better job. But Serpico? You'd have never seen it coming. The Matrix movies were enjoyable (the first, outstanding) and both Speed and Point Break are action classics, but recently Reeves has been trying to broaden his, admittedly limited, range. His Constantine character was surprisingly dark and well-realised by Reeves, and Scanner Darkly offered him no room to drift back into Bill and Ted posturing (as he so often did in many of his more popular movies). Here he plays Detective Tom Ludlow, the damaged core of this cop thriller. And he's actually quite good in the part. He has moments where he cannot grasp the essence of the material (notably, he has difficultly expressing any convincing emotions whilst someone is dying in his arms) but for the most part embraces this beleaguered soul, who - at the heart of it all - just wants to see justice served. Occasionally you wonder whether a higher class of actor could not have brought something deeper to the screen, made this even more focussed on Ludlow, and less necessary to carry him through such a roller-coaster ride of adventures. Still, for the most part, it appears the Director's intention to play it this way, with Reeves on good, laconic form (which worked well for him in Constantine), but is also never pushed too far beyond his (now extended) abilities.
Backing up we have the likes of Hugh Laurie (who, at least for his introduction, seems like he is just playing 'House') and the underrated Chris Evans. He's actually quite endearing, both with his witty banter with Michael Chiklis that marks the highlight of the Fantastic Four movies, and also in more dramatic movies like Sunshine, where he gets to show some range. Here his role is a tiny bit limited, but he plays well opposite Reeves' ostensibly corrupt cop. A couple of good rappers turn up - Common and The Game - and also turn out to be quite convincing in their roles (unlike their lame counterparts, Ja Rule and fiddy Cent), and the female characters are richly embodied by relative newcomers Naomie Harris (28 Days Later) and the Mexican beauty Martha Higareda.
In fact, everybody seems to slot right into their respective roles perfectly, bringing us some good characters, apart from one Oscar Winning quality actor, a certain Mr Whitaker. Forest, oh Forest, after being a Ghost Dog, ruling Uganda and proving to be a powerful nemesis in The Shield... what made you pick Vantage Point? You were utterly redundant in that movie, and over-acted throughout the affair. And what did you do to follow suit? Join the cast of the quality crime drama Street Kings, in a prominent role, and play it as Don King. Why oh why? Don't you know, nobody trusts Don King?! It is one of the biggest flaws about the movie, and it is almost a credit to Reeves and the Director - and the story itself - that it manages to hold together with Whitaker hamming his way through the proceedings like a bull in a china shop.
Shot to bring the dark depths of LA's streets to life, with a suitably broody soundtrack that heightens the claustrophobic feeling whenever necessary, Street Kings remains a solid thriller which, despite all of the noted flaws, is thoroughly enjoyable. Every single shootout is tense and dramatic - twists and turns peppered throughout to make you wonder just how things are going to turn out. The script is clever, and occasionally even demanding, and the acting is - for the most part - excellent. The end result is like Serpico crossed with The Shield and whilst it is not as good as either one of those two, the combination still makes for a very engaging, entertaining police thriller.
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