It’s been a while since we’ve had a decent LAPD drama. Street Kings provides a welcome return to the slums of South Central, where gangsters, pimps and corrupt policemen roam amongst the convenience stores and chicken-wire fences.
Keanu Reeves plays Tom Ludlow, an LAPD veteran who becomes a bit of an ‘on-the-edge’ alcoholic after the death of his beloved wife. After being framed for murder by those close to him, he is forced to go up against corrupt cop culture.
Whilst occasionally veering into a familiar ‘Bill and Ted’ approach, Reeves manages to be an engaging presence as the hard-assed vigilante. Forest Whitaker is much better as his charismatic boss, Captain Wander. There’s also good supporting work from Chris Evans as the all-American rookie, and House’s Hugh Laurie as the police chief.
The story is by James Ellroy, a respected crime enthusiast who wrote ‘L.A. Confidential’ and ‘The Black Dahlia’. But the adapted script can’t hide the feeling that the deeper thematic concerns of the original novel have been jettisoned in favour of a straightforward thriller plot. For example, there is material about racism here, black vs. white (“What happened? We used to be brothers.”), which is never expanded upon.
If there’s a minor weakness, then, it’s to do with the way Street Kings seems to sacrifice tone and colour in favour of a focussed plot. The early Korea-town shoot-out and subsequent fallout, in particular, feels a bit paint-by-numbers. There’s often a sense that even the dialogue is only there to serve storyline rather than enhance character.
This very violent film intendeds to be gritty and realistic, and largely succeeds, but is occasionally let down by some silly hard-boiled detective dialogue. The overall story arc is predictable, but director David Ayer provides the film with sufficient focus to hold viewer attention.
Street Kings is a decent morality play; lean and focussed. It is attractively shot, and provides the best look at after-dark Los Angeles since Michael Mann’s Collateral.