Crime novelist James Ellroy has had several of his stories turned into films, notably “L.A. Confidential” and “The Black Dahlia,” but “Street Kings” marks the first time he’s written something directly for the screen. Too bad he chose an unoriginal plotline, and too bad the script got “helped” by two other scribes and eventually turned into such a generic mess.
The characters in the film — a gritty L.A. crime drama full of crooked cops and double-crosses — speak almost exclusively in clichés and metaphors. I assume the interesting ones, as when a cop tells a hated rival, “Do the department a favor and wash your mouth out with buckshot,” came from Ellroy. It must have been also-credited writers Kurt Wimmer (“The Recruit,” “Ultraviolet”) and Jamie Moss (no prior film work) who came up with clunkers like “It’s time to turn the page and close the book” and “Washington’s problems are over. Yours are just beginning.”
Also: “What happened to you, Terrence? We used to be brothers.”
And: “Keep your dog on a leash!” (Not referring to a real dog or a real leash.)
Our antihero is Det. Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves), a vaguely racist and clearly alcoholic vice detective in the grand tradition of drunk, loathsome cops. He’s also a grandstander, eager to bust up a child-kidnapping ring singlehandedly so he can get all the praise for himself, and also so he can shoot unarmed suspects without any witnesses.
His methods may be unorthodox — the film stops just short of actually using the words “loose cannon” — but he Gets the Job Done. He has the support of his squad leader, Capt. Jack Wander (Forest Whitaker), and the implicit support of his fellow vice cops (including Jay Mohr and Amaury Nolasco).
Whose support he does not have is Capt. James Biggs (Hugh Laurie), an internal affairs investigator with a fine-tuned B.S. detector. When Ludlow’s whistle-blowing former partner (Terry Crews) is shot by masked thugs, Biggs wonders if Ludlow is to blame. After all, it’s mighty helpful to his own situation that the guy who knows about his shady deeds has been filled full of lead. Ludlow had nothing to do with the shooting, but he knows it looks bad, and he enlists a straitlaced junior internal affairs detective named Diskant (Chris Evans) to help him find the real shooters.
From there the film becomes an elaborate and complicated tale of police corruption. Ludlow, like Vic Mackey on TV’s “The Shield” (and so many other hard-boiled cops before him), may not go by the book, but he’s ultimately dedicated to the side of justice and goodness. Certain other cops in his department — heck, the vast majority, it would seem — are not nearly as high-minded in their devotions.
Yet there’s a certain unappealing selfishness to Ludlow’s behavior, too. Everyone has personal demons to deal with, yet he considers his own to be of greatest importance. People around him die at an alarming rate, often because of danger he put them in. I’m reminded of “The Big Heat,” Fritz Lang’s cold-blooded 1953 cop noir, in which (as Roger Ebert eloquently describes in his essay on the film) the supposedly heroic leading man is directly or indirectly responsible for the death of several innocent parties. Yeah, you’re fightin’ crime. Does everyone have to die in the process?
“Street Kings,” which was directed by “Training Day” screenwriter David Ayer, is finally undone by a story that manages to be both implausible and overly familiar. The drugs, the corruption, the double-crosses, the late-in-the-game plot twists — we’ve seen all of this before, and we didn’t buy it then, either. Reeves’ performance as a supposedly dark and haunted cop barely scratches the surface of such a character, and while the peculiar ravings of men like Forest Whitaker and Hugh Laurie can hold an audience’s attention, they’re not enough to breathe life into an unoriginal story.
C (1 hr., 47 min.; )