Alcoholic police detective Todd Ludlow (Keanu Reeves) has just finished wrapping up a notorious kidnapping case when Captain Jack Wander (Forest Whittaker) gives him the bad news. His ex-partner Terrence Washington (Terry Crews) is talking to Internal Affairs, and bureau head Captain James Biggs (Hugh Laurie) is looking to take Ludlow down. Before he can intimidate his former friend into not snitching, a pair of gang bangers kill him. Desperate to clear his own name in the death, Ludlow begins to investigate. Soon, he's linking the crime to a couple of local drug dealers who seem incapable of committing the hit. With Wander on his side and Biggs on his back, it will take all the street savvy he has to solve the case -- that is, if someone doesn't try and permanently stop him too.
Never really surprising us, even as it crackles with cinematic energy, Street Kings is an inherently engaging crime drama. Even though we know where the narrative is going before the characters do, and grasp the ambiguous moralizing right up front, Training Day screenwriter David Ayers, delivers a gritty, gratuitous entertainment. As only his second time behind the camera (the first being the underrated Harsh Times), he finds the proper balance between urban crime and uptown punishment. Sure, the casting is a little bizarre (Cedric the Entertainer as a hard-nosed heroin addict? Hugh Laurie as a brutish Internal Affairs chief?), but for every odd beat, Ayers has an action movie answer. There are many moments when this standard police procedural feels like a contemporary Chinatown filtered through a subtler Scarface. At other instances, it all falls apart.
Reeves finally shakes his post-Matrix malaise to deliver a finely tuned turn as Ludlow. Face puffy with the initial stages of gin blossoms, and his attitude soured as much as soused, he comes across as defiant, but dour, capable of great heroism. That is, when he isn't violating every protocol and Constitutional protection imaginable. He is matched well by Whitaker, who seems permanently wound up and amplified here. Their scenes together arc with unexpected dramatics. Along the edges, Fantastic Four's Chris Evans and comedian Jay Mohr offer intriguing takes on the good cop/bad cop dynamic. Even Cedric and Laurie manage to overcome our expectations to deliver key performances.
It's just too bad then that Street Kings doesn't offer up anything new or original. Indeed, fans of Curtis Hanson's Oscar winning Ellroy adaptation from 1997 may be able to predict the ending without seeing the entire storyline. Yet Ayers delivers enough genre basics, turning the narrative in ways that make the clichés seem clever, that we don't mind revisiting these stale situations. Calling a film derivative is usually considered detrimental. For Street Kings, being an above-average example of an overused idea is not necessarily a bad thing. An influx of invention would have made this a modern classic. As it stands, it's solidly serviceable.
You'll never take me alive, coppers! Oh, I guess you will.
Run time: 109 mins
In Theaters: Friday 11th April 2008
Box Office USA: $26.4M
Box Office Worldwide: $65.6M
Distributed by: 20th Century Fox/Regency Films
Production compaines: Fox Searchlight Pictures, Regency Enterprises, Dune Entertainment III, Emmett/Furla Films, Yari Film Group
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 36%
Fresh: 54 Rotten: 97
IMDB: 6.8 / 10
Director: David Ayers
Screenwriter: David Ayer, James Ellroy, Jamie Moss
Starring: Keanu Reeves as Detective Tom Ludlow, Forest Whitaker as Captain Jack Wander, Chris Evans as Detective Paul Diskant, Hugh Laurie as Captain James Biggs, Martha Higareda as Grace Garcia, Cedric the Entertainer as Scribble, Naomie Harris as Linda Washington, Common as Coates, Amaury Nolasco as Detective Cosmo Santos, Angela Sun as Julie Fukashima, Cle Shaheed Sloan as Fremont, Jayceon Terrell Taylor as Grill, Michael Monks as Michael Monks
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