By Brian Rentschler
Short version: This movie starts out with some potential, but by the end, it's over-the-top yet mediocre at the same time. It has its good spots, but overall its flaws are too distracting and frustrating for it to be truly enjoyable.
As usual, Keanu Reeves substitutes with likability what he lacks in acting ability. Throughout the entire movie, the believability factor of Reeves playing a cop is about the same as when Kevin Costner played Robin Hood. Somehow, it doesn't matter, though. Far more detrimental to the movie are plot holes and logic gaps in the story that could accommodate a big rig. With the exception of Hugh Laurie, who plays
Dr. House Captain Biggs, nearly every actor in this movie hams it up, even the Oscar-winning Forest Whitaker. With a better script and better direction, this movie had the potential to be something more and have something poignant to say. As it exists now, if I were a cop, I would probably feel insulted by this movie.
Set in (where else?) Los Angeles, the story centers around the LAPD, in particular Detective Tom Ludlow (played by Keanu Reeves). For lack of a better term, Detective Ludlow doesn't play by the rules. It's not so much by choice, but rather because he works for Captain Jack Wander (played by Forest Whitaker), who directs his entire team to dispense his own unique brand of street justice. For example, to take down some drug dealers who have kidnapped two young girls, Captain Wander has Tom raid their hideout, killing everyone in sight and planting evidence to make it look like self-defense. No warrants, no lengthy trial process, just commendations all around for fine police work.
Sounds like a cushy deal for everybody, right? Captain Wander is working his way up through the ranks because of all the criminals his team is taking off the streets, and Tom is practically his right-hand man. "You're the tip of the spear," says Wander to Tom at one point. But there's a complication. (Isn't there always?) There is quite a bit of tension between Tom and his former partner, Detective Terrence Washington (played by Terry Crews). To make matters worse, there are rumors that Terrence has been talking to Captain Biggs (played by Hugh Laurie) in Internal Affairs in an effort to rat out Tom. Of course, Tom is very upset by these rumors, so he starts following Terrence around. Almost immediately, Terrence is shot to death in a convenience store robbery.
It doesn't take Tom long to find out who shot Terrence, but he's in for a shock. It seems like everyone is trying to bury the evidence they have against the shooters. At the same time, more rumors start to surface about Terrence, namely that he was a dirty cop on the take. For what seems like the first time, Tom starts to wonder if aligning himself with Wander is such a good idea. He also starts to wonder if the real story behind what happened to Terrence may be very different from what he has been hearing. Captain Biggs sees Tom as an opportunity to take down Captain Wander. Meanwhile, Captain Wander sees Tom a different way, and I'm sure you can guess how he reacts.
Will Tom be able to get justice for Terrence and his widow? Will he uncover the whole sordid truth about how far his boss and his team are willing to go to keep their operation going? Will Captain Biggs play a pivotal role in the story's outcome, even though he only has a small role? If you don't know the answers to those questions, you haven't seen enough formulaic, mediocre cop movies.
It's still not clear to me how the great novelist James Ellroy could have been involved in co-writing something so over-the-top and yet mediocre at the same time. Then again, he wrote the novel The Black Dahlia, whose movie adaptation I didn't like very much. To be fair, Street Kings starts out with some potential — a cop whose team operates in the "gray area" of the law discovers the boundaries of that aforementioned "gray area" the hard way. It's an interesting idea, and it certainly has some real-life precedent; Serpico (which is referenced during some dialog in this movie) is just one example. The problem is, rather than strive to be as powerful and emotional as Serpico, this movie goes for the entertainment factor instead. As it gets closer to the end, the amount of ridiculously over-the-top dialog and action keeps growing to the point where it becomes distracting and frustrating. The last part of the movie is so silly that I'm still wondering how I sat through the whole thing without my eyes glazing over and rolling back into my head.
So is this movie worth seeing? That depends on what you're expecting. The good things about it include Keanu Reeves' likable performance (I can't believe I just wrote that), a few fairly tense shoot-em-up scenes, some witty dialog, and rap artist Common in a small but compelling role. The bad things are mainly plot points that are so unrealistic and silly that they distract the viewer and make it hard to become really immersed in the story. If you check your brain at the door and go for a couple of hours of mindless entertainment, you should be fine. However, I was expecting something more substantial. Street Kings is not terrible, by any means. It actually starts out with some potential, but it goes quickly downhill from there, and the end result is far less than what it could have been.