Friday, April 11, 2008

"Street Kings" -- * * *

David Ayer’s police thriller “Street Kings” is currently sitting at 15% (!) on Rotten Tomatoes’ cream of the crop critics, and averaging a 4.9 rating out of 10. I don’t know if I’m losing it or if I just have a greater capacity than most for appreciating fun movies, but like the also-opening-this-week “Smart People,” “Street Kings” is a fairly familiar entry in a seemingly burnt out genre that I have to recommend simply because it does what it’s supposed to do in an exceedingly enjoyable fashion. Some suspension of belief is required to swallow some of the turns it takes, but if you allow yourself to work on its level, you’ll have difficulty not being entertained. Though my levels of appreciation may be due to low expectations (I really wasn’t anticipating this particular screening), it’s a rough, energetic, kind-of-silly crime flick that comfortably fits in with Ayer’s other solid, gritty works.

I don’t know about you, but I had no clue what the plot of this movie was going to be based on its indecipherable trailer, so perhaps I was more absorbed thanks to not knowing anything. But anyway, here goes. Vaguely resembling a convoluted “Training Day” (which Ayer wrote) crossed with FX’s “The Shield,” “Street Kings” centers around LAPD vice detective Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves) and the ethical wasteland he’s immersed in on a daily basis. A hothead widower, Ludlow isn’t anyone’s idea of a “clean” cop, and his habits seem to be catching up with him, despite the assistance of his doting Captain (Forest Whitaker). Ludlow’s ex-partner Washington (Terry Crews) is ratting him out to IA and thus threatening his livelihood; tracking Washington down at a convenience mart with the intention of breaking his jaw, Ludlow instead witnesses some thugs machine gun the Detective down before he gets the chance. Even though he loathed the guy, something about the situation just seems fishy to Tom. Despite warnings by his colleagues to let it go, and hindered by a snooping, investigating Captain (Hugh Laurie), Ludlow sets about to right this wrong with the assistance of a pretty, younger detective, Paul Diskant (Chris Evans), and finds mucho corruption.

Reeves, for all the derision he gets about limited range, is pretty good as the ethically ambiguous Ludlow. Whether fighting for truth and justice, or downing airplane vodka bottles while driving, Reeves plays him as alternately sad, dedicated, angry and a little crazy, and his performance serves as a reminder that the oft-mocked actor is a compelling presence when he’s in his element (even if he should do more comedy a la “Thumbsucker”). As Ludlow’s initial adversary but eventual muscle-tee-wearing ally, Evans is no great shakes, but shows (with this and his work in “Sunshine”) that he’s significantly better when he’s appearing in non-awful movies. He’s not there yet, but there’s seemingly potential. Whitaker, on the other hand, is in the midst of the quickest post-Oscar regression in recent memory. Though admittedly, this is the first role he actually signed on to post-Oscar win (“Vantage Point” apparently was pre), he seems to still be stuck in Idi Amin shouting mode. Some of his later scenes drew laughs from my crowd, and I don’t think they were supposed to; I started to become genuinely concerned that he was going to pass out from all the bellowing and sweating.

Besides those three, the rest of this illustrious cast is mostly confined to bit parts. The Game and Common each show up in convincing one-scene stints as *shocker* criminals, while John Corbett (who I’ll still always see as Aidan) struggles to sound tough during his third act scenes. Laurie pops up every 20 minutes or so and does well with his minimal material, but my audience laughed at his first appearance in a hospital, presumably thinking he might have been playing Dr. House here too. Speaking of laughter, Ayer deserves some credit for casting three actors (Crews, Jay Mohr, Cedric the Entertainer) known for their comedic work in dramatic roles and making it work.

In his sophomore directing effort after the undervalued “Harsh Times,” Ayer seems firmly set on making this type of movie his niche and he’s doing a good job thus far. The guy makes solid, pulpy crime flicks, and whatever he helms next, I have a feeling it’ll involve cops, and I have a feeling it’ll be entertaining. The script itself—a hodgepodge of work by James Ellroy (“L.A. Confidential”), Jamie Moss (debut) and Kurt Wimmer (“Ultraviolet”)—earns a couple demerits. Some of the bad guys, in Bond villain fashion, reveal their evil scheme to our protagonist before they can take him out, and it’s fairly predictable which characters will turn out to be bad (if they’re a cop, you can bet they’re corrupt).

Still, it’s nice to see a densely plotted cop/crime film that uses shoot ‘em up scenes or action sequences merely as punctuation rather than the whole show. Even if the plot twists late in the game are entertainingly ludicrous and the story brings nothing new to the table, things are refreshingly plot-oriented, and the film wallows in compelling ambiguity. The screenplay takes a while to actually establish Ludlow as a hero of any sort, and he’s made more interesting for it.

My real question here is, why is this movie being put out through Fox’s specialty/arthouse division, Fox Searchlight, and not their main outfit, 20th Century Fox? This extremely mainstream effort isn’t arty or “specialty” in the least. My theory: Fox just wanted to maintain their recent policy of only putting out shit movies (“Shutter,” “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” “Jumper”) and passing off everything good (“Juno,” “The Savages,” “Once”) to Searchlight, whether it’s mainstream or not. Anyway, “Street Kings” won’t blow anyone away, but it’s assuredly entertaining and well-constructed in a manner relatively unusual within the genre. I tend to have trouble getting into these sorts of movies, but Ayer’s film is rarely (if ever) dull, and kept my interest throughout, even if it doesn’t break any new ground.


Anonymous suadref said...

wow... excellent review. Very detailed...

5:57 PM  

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