More bullets where that came from
The new movie Street Kings, directed by David Ayer from a story by crime novelist James Ellroy and a script by Ellroy, Kurt Wimmer and Jamie Moss, gets us off to an unsettling start. We see Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves) wake up in the morning with an automatic pistol in his hand. He sits up in bed and snaps a magazine into the gun, and we think, “Gee, before you’ve even had your coffee?” He stumbles into the bathroom and vomits into the toilet. No doubt about it, this guy has issues—he sleeps clutching an empty gun and starts the day with a halfhearted puke. And this is before we even know he’s a cop who stocks up on mini bottles of vodka for swilling on the job.
Cops with issues are a staple of movies like this—like Training Day, which David Ayer wrote—just as they are in Ellroy’s novels, and there’s something overfamiliar about Street Kings even as we grapple with the frantic gallop of the movie’s plot and its tangled cast of obstreperous characters.
Ludlow works for the Los Angeles Police Department Vice Division under Capt. Jack Wander (Forest Whitaker). In the opening scene, he sets up an illicit-weapons buy with a couple of Asian gangbangers—or so it seems. It’s actually a ruse to find out where these guys are hiding their kidnapped 14-year-old sex slaves. Exactly how this ties together is left unclear in the headlong rush of fisticuffs and gunfire, but when the smoke clears, the gangbangers and their two accomplices are dead, and Ludlow is comforting the cowering girls while setting the house up to look like a clean hit by a heroic officer responding to “exigent circumstances.” We can see that Ludlow is a guy who knows how to drop the hammer on the baddies while putting a good face to the public, and without being a stickler for legalities.
Most of the members of Capt. Wander’s unit assure Ludlow that they’ve “got his back.” But one cop who doesn’t is Ludlow’s former partner Washington (Terry Crews), who seems to be snitching to Internal Affairs Capt. Biggs (Hugh Laurie), a smarmy sort who warns Ludlow and Wander that he’s got his eye on them. When the hotheaded Ludlow goes to confront Washington, he walks into a convenience-store ambush in which the latter is mowed down (Street Kings never fires a single shot when a fusillade will do). Since the store’s video surveillance seems to implicate Ludlow in the killing, Wander suggests that Ludlow should make the DVD disappear.
Ludlow takes that advice, but not the advice to let the matter drop. Washington may have turned on him, but Ludlow didn’t want him dead, and he doesn’t want his killers to get away. Even as he’s transferred to a low-profile desk job, Ludlow keeps an eye on the investigation, through the lead detective Paul Diskant (Chris Evans).
While Ayer gets strong, hard-edged performances from his actors (Reeves has seldom been this good) and the writers give them pungent dialogue, Street Kings observes many of the conventions of corrupt-cop movies (if not of police corruption in real life). We learn once again that being the partner of a maverick cop is not a good career move. We wonder if there are any honest cops in L.A.—until a major character tells us explicitly (“we’re all bad people”) that there are not. And ultimately, we are assured yet again that all you can do is watch out for yourself, killing the worst and reaching an accommodation with the least bad.
With all the kinetic action and murky atmospheric images, Ayer and company still let slip some pretty silly moments. A crooked cop on the take chooses a hiding place for his loot that makes us wonder if he ever planned to spend it. And silliest of all, Ludlow passes the stolen surveillance disk to Washington’s widow (Naomie Harris), just so she can figure later in the plot—as if a woman would cherish the footage of her husband’s slaughter, or a cop under suspicion would let a potentially incriminating video out of his sight.
We’re not supposed to think about that, I suspect, or about the almost supernatural leaps of intuition that lead Ludlow and Diskant from one plot point to the next. By pulling us along like a tour guide leaving out chunks of his spiel, the movie underlines its theme: These guys may be unsavory and brutal, but they know how things work. They’re smarter than you are.