Street Kings

| April 17, 2008

The trailer for Street Kings, narrated by the throaty Don LaFontaine (or a reasonable facsimile), prepares us for an visual assault: “On the streets of L.A., every cop wants justice, but how they get it is what sets them apart.” The action and scrolled text assure us of the aforementioned beating: “Their city. Their rules. No prisoners.” Word on the proverbial “streets” was Street Kings was going to be a blown-up episode of The Shield, with a lean, handsome Keanu Reeves taking the place of a squat, grizzled Michael Chiklis. Street Kings is far from scripted television and performs well as an action film prelim to the big blockbuster summer franchise film tent-poles we got coming to us this year.
From the opening, we meet Detective Tom Ludlow, a veteran anti-gang investigator going through the motions as he wakes up (fully clothed) for the early evening shift. He’s on a liquid diet and reinforces that with a few hotel-sized bottles of vodka for his drive down a side street in Koreatown, Los Angeles, where meets with two Asian thugs.
“Konichi-wa!” Ludlow greets these men, who waste no time explaining that to Koreans, being addressed in Japanese is offensive. Strike one: Ludlow is insensitive.
Detective Ludlow opens his trunk, which stores an antiquated modified M156 Helicopter multi-armament mount machine gun. Strike two: Ludlow is dirty. He’s selling guns retrieved from the LAPD evidence lock-up.
During the bad guys-bad cop banter on pricing and etiquette, Detective Ludlow assumes they are both Korean. When corrected that one gangster is Filipino, Reeves delivers one of the sharpest lines I’ve heard in a while: “I can’t tell the difference. How can you? You all have eyes shaped like exclamation points, you dress White, you talk Black, and drive Jewish!”
Strike three: Tom Ludlow is a racist.
The gangsters dispatch a beat down worthy of righteous indignation even from a pair of sensitive gangsters.
The pay-off to this scene reveals the Asian thugs to be part of a Korean gang trafficking in under-aged girls and child pornography. Detective Ludlow tracks the gang to their hideout and dispatches them with swift and blinding gun violence worthy of television’s Vic Mackey.
Street King‘s story structure runs along the scheme of providing a series of setups with delayed and rewarding payoffs. Ludlow is the target of an Internal Affairs investigation (actually targeted at his mentor/superior, Captain Jack Wander, played by Forest Whitaker). Capt. Wander heads up a small Detective street team that boasts controversial if not successful arrests. Ludlow’s ex-partner, Detective Washington, once dirty but has seen the light, has been identified as talking to Internal Affairs. On learning of this, Ludlow attempts to confront Washington, only to witness, and by extension be implicated in, his brutal murder by two gangbanging “Monsters” in an apparently staged robbery.
Forest Whitaker (Vantage Point, The Last King of Scotland, The Shield) gives a convincing performance as the father-figure mentor with a hidden agenda. He’s more wolf in sheep’s clothing with a disarming smile. Keanu Reeves infuses Ludlow with stoic intensity as a man used to being a blunt object weapon, now slowly becoming unraveled as he questions not only who but why he’s being made to kill. The hip-hop artist Common (Smokin’ Aces, Wanted) puts forth a fine, if not frightening, performance of Coates, a serial-killing County Sheriff with a bad drug problem. Hugh Laurie does a good turn in a small part as the conflicted Internal Affairs Chief on the heels of Reeves’ Ludlow. Chris Evans (Fantastic Four, Sunshine, Nanny Diaries) puts in some time as a reluctant Detective charged with investigating Reeve’s character.
David Ayer is no stranger to the urban-cop genre as evidenced by his writer’s curriculum vitae: the acclaimed Training Day, followed by Dark Blue, SWAT and Harsh Times. In his second film as a director, Ayer continues to examine the themes of loyalty, honesty and the inevitability of justice defined through street culture. This is exhibited by Detective Alonzo’s downfall in Training Day, Sgt. Perry’s redemption in Dark Blue and Jim Luther Davis’ climatic demise in Harsh Times. Street Kings is no different. Ayer follows Reeves’ Ludlow through a constricting labyrinth of betrayal and disappointment. Street Kings succeeds where most director’s sophomore attempts languish, it stands out and gives the audience what it expects: an angry cop in an angry environment caught between individual ambiguous virtue and an overwhelming culture of corruption and deceit.
At its core, Street Kings is strictly paint by numbers urban drama that is elevated by decent acting and a director’s passion for the subject matter.

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