Fox // 2008 // 109 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // September 1st, 2008
Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves, The Replacements) is an LAPD vice cop, the bad-ass, rule-breaking variety. A troubled alcoholic widower, Tom's rule breaking is in the name of justice, not personal gain, and he's protected by his superior, Captain Jack Wander (Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland).
When word gets out that Ludlow's former partner, Washington, has been talking to Internal Affairs, it looks like his sketchy past is about to catch up with him. Ludlow follows the guy around one day and confronts him at a convenience store. Just then, two masked burglars burst into the store and shoot it up, pumping several dozen bullets into Washington. In the melee, one of Ludlow's bullets also ends up in his ex-partner's back.
With Tom's reputation, this looks bad, so Wander and the other cops are ready to cover it up. They'll write off the killing as unsolved and say that Tom showed up after the shooting. But as much as Tom despised his old partner, he still wants to see justice served, and with the help of a young homicide detective (Chris Evans, Fantastic Four) goes after the shooters himself.
But there's something else going on here, levels of corruption and double-dealing that Tom couldn't imagine. And the deeper Tom digs, the worse it gets.
Street Kings was an original a script by James Ellroy. Ellroy has written some terrific novels -- L.A. Confidential, White Jazz, and American Tabloid are modern pulp classics. His stories are complex, often told through internal monologues, shifting points of view, and a fragmented writing style.
Street Kings seems like it could have started as a novel, and that's not necessarily a good thing. With its clumsy exposition, sometimes stylized dialogue, and subtext that never quite makes it to the surface, Street Kings is like a mediocre adaptation of a good book.
Evidently, Ellroy wrote this in the mid-'90s as a reaction to the OJ Simpson case, which might explain why the hero is portrayed initially as having racist tendencies, but is dating a Latina nurse. Ellroy's script was reworked through the years, and that plot point gets scuttled early on. Two other writers, Kurt Wimmer and Jamie Moss, are credited here. Director David Ayer also worked on a draft with Moss. I don't know how much of the finished product was Ellroy's, but certainly the convoluted plot and large chunks of dialogue sound like him. Unfortunately, there's also a lot that doesn't sound like Ellroy, and that's a problem. Ellroy's style is so distinctive that mixing it with another writer's work is jarring.
The tone seems off. One minute, Street Kings is a high-energy and bloody, if routine, police actioner; the next, it's a punchy morality tale with hard-bitten and symbol-heavy characters with names like "Captain Jack Wander" or "Scribble"; then it's a mystery filled with gaping plot holes and resolutions not half as clever as it thinks.
There's still a lot to like here. Reeves' automaton performance actually works for his damaged character, and Evans is stalwart and earnest as the young detective. Whitaker, as well as Jay Mohr, John Corbett, Cedric the Entertainer, and a woefully underused Hugh Laurie seem to be having a good time playing more colorful characters.
As Judge David Johnson points out in his review of the Blu-Ray disc, one of the drawbacks to the film is "that 'predictable' thing." Once you see where this is going, you'll be able to figure most of it out. There are still a few fun and suspenseful surprises along the way, and some of the plot twists are pretty cool.
Unfortunately, there are too many balls in the air and no graceful way for it to all make sense, so we end up with not one, not two, but three long expository speeches laying out what's been going on. This includes that old standard, "I'm going to kill you, but before I do, allow me to deconstruct the entire plot for you." This is followed by the classic bad guy mistake, toying with the victim instead of just blowing his brains out, thus allowing the victim to get the upper hand.
There is a lot of action here -- chases, shootings, beatings, lots of bloodletting -- but this is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the film moves offers some nice adrenaline rushing; the down side is this shortchanges the film's atmosphere. We get no real sense of place; it's L.A., but it could be anywhere. We also end up hopscotching through some of the finer points of Ludlow's, leaving the impression at times that he's less Harry Callahan savvy than Miss Cleo psychic.
Fox has given us a very good release. The transfer looks great, and the 5.1 audio track is dynamic. We get a nice slate of extras, including an audio commentary by Director David Ayer. This is definitely worth a listen. In addition to the usual "filler" stuff that turns up in commentaries -- trivia about the locations and praise for the actors -- Ayers explains some nuances of what's happening on-screen.
"Street Rules: Rolling with David Ayer and Jaime Fitzsimons" consists of the director riding around a rejuvenated area of LA with his LAPD Technical Advisor, former detective Fitzsimons. I don't know what this segment was shot with, but it looks horrendous, like an old VHS tape. It's an otherwise nice piece, and it's good to have a positive spin on police work accompanying a film that basically portrays the entire force as greedy, corrupt, and amoral. Other supplements are pretty brief, the usual look at actors, writers, and behind the scenes stuff, along with deleted and alternate scenes.
Dancing between the literate and the ludicrous, Street Kings is a better than the average cop/caper/action film but not the neo-noir classic that it seemed to aspire to be.
Not guilty, but with reservations.
Review content copyright © 2008 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary by Director David Ayer
* "Street Rules: Rolling with David Ayer and Jaime Fitzsimons"
* "La Bete Noir: Writing Street Kings"
* "Street Cred"
* Deleted Scenes
* Alternate Takes
* Behind the Scenes
* Official Site