TV has killed movies like Street Kings.
Once upon a time a slight film like this would be part of a good double
feature; you may even have ended up liking the smaller, unpretentious
feature more than the bigger movie driving that double bill. But now
movies like that have become TV shows on cable. The truth is that
besides some cursing, there’s not much in Street Kings that you couldn’t find in an episode of The Shield, all the way down to its setting.
Which isn’t to say that Street Kings isn’t
any good. It’s a fine movie, but it doesn’t bring a single new thing to
the table. It’s hard to justify the cost of a night out at the movies
when it comes to a movie like this. Middle of the road programmers:
they’re the biggest casualty of rising movie ticket prices.
Keanu Reeves is miscast as a cop who is not quite dirty; he doesn’t
take bribes or deal drugs, but he is a triggerman for a vice squad that
takes the law into their own hands. Keanu is the guy who knocks down
the door and puts a bullet in the face of a guy on the toilet because
he’s part of a ring that kidnaps and rapes young girls. He’s the muscle
of the Dirty Harry squad, essentially. But when his former partner, who
has been going to Internal Affairs about the inner dealings of the
Dirty Harry squad, gets blown away by machine gun toting gangbangers
after Keanu accidentally put a bullet in his shoulder (it’s just as
plausibility stretching in the film as it is in text), Keanu starts to
go even outside of the squad who goes outside the law in an attempt to
find out the truth. And if you can’t guess what he finds out… well,
you’re the ideal audience for Street Kings.
I like Street Kings’ varying shades
of grey when it comes to dirty cops; Keanu is technically a dirty cop
because he executes criminals, but we’re pretty sure all these
criminals could really use some executing, and besides, we see that
it’s impacting his conscience. He tells the other cops in his unit
(including a seriously hilariously miscast and mustachioed Jay Mohr)
that he’s pulling the trigger because he doesn’t want these killings on
their shoulders. Again, it’s not original – it’s sort of the whole
basis of The Shield – but it’s a relevant area to examine in this post-Ramparts era.
But so much else of Street Kings just
slides away from you. There are good performances – Chris Evans
continues to prove that he’s one of the best young mainstream actors
out there (why he’s not getting better roles in better films eludes
me), and Hugh Laurie makes a good Internal Affairs investigator who is
convinced the police department is riddled with lupus*. I don’t know
that Forrest Whitaker gives a good performance, but
it’s a fun one; emboldened with his Oscar he takes the opportunity to
chew his way through all of the scenery with abandon, especially in his
big capper scene at the end. But as is so often the case, Keanu Reeves
just drags the whole thing down.
Reeves is not a hard edged drunk who kills for a living. It’s sort of
amazing that John Cusack could play a role like that but Keanu Reeves
is totally incapable, and there’s no way to get past it in all of Street Kings’ runtime.
I do think I would buy him as a serial killer, though – there’s a
certain blankness to him, even in real life, that feels like it could
contain massive amounts of icy hearted hate. I don’t think that Keanu
kills Street Kings – Evans, who doesn’t get enough screentime at all, keeps it afloat – but he never helps the movie transcend its TV showitis.
David Ayer is becoming the modern Homer of criminal LA; he wrote Training Day, and he directed Harsh Times.
There doesn’t feel like there’s a whole lot more for him to mine in
this milieu, and I hope he moves on to something different for his next
film. Ayer isn’t a great director, but he’s certainly competent enough
– and does a good job of shooting the most overshot city on Earth –
that I’m interested in seeing what he has coming up next. As long as
it’s a little bit different.
It would have been nice if Street Kings had in some way distinguished itself. Never going completely into gritty realism while also never going into slambang action, Street Kings is a film in search of its own Vic Mackey.
*This is a House joke. I’m not sure I needed to explain that.