The opening scene of Street Kings tells us exactly what the next two hours are going to be like. Keanu Reeves, a little bit gone to seed, wakes up grasping for his gun. He goes to the bathroom, pukes in the toilet, cleans his loaded handgun and steps out of his motel-ish apartment. We then realize it’s not morning — it’s sunset. Reeves, playing moral yet blindly violent cop, Tom Ludlow, buys exclusively airplane serving-sized vodka as his beverage of choice and drinks them in his pimped-out ride. For an L.A.P.D. bad boy, the work day has just begun.
Street Kings, the latest film based on a book by crime writer James Ellroy (who also gave us L.A. Confidential and The Black Dahlia), is gangsta rap and hip hop translated into the big screen; it revels in blood, vintage machine guns, colloquial racism, $100,000 cars and brief cameos by beautiful Latina women. However, it imports none of the MTV glitz and faux-glamour we see daily in hip-hop music videos — despite its picturesque portrayal of violence, Street Kings reads as credible and vicious. The women are a new sort of sexy (Martha Higareda is quiet and petite as Ludlow’s love interest) and the violence is always unashamedly bloody and fast-paced. The film staggers, reeling from gun fight to drug deal with a tangible intensity and never stops to rest.
In the film, Ludlow is the “tip of the spear” of a crime fighting unit under the command of the seemingly loyal Captain Jack Wander (Forrest Whitaker). When Ludlow is mistakenly implicated in his ex-partner’s death, he goes on a righteous man hunt to find the true killers. His crusade is less an attempt to assert his innocence — the corrupt LAPD is ready to “have his back” on all levels — but more of an illogical redemption mission after his inability to find justice in his wife’s death. The plot, of course, thickens, and suddenly Ludlow is dragged into the world where, as Forrest Whittaker somberly explains, “We’re all bad.” By the end of the film, after so many scenes of confused bloodshed, we choose to agree.
Though Street Kings is thematically null, it still wittily crafted. Yes, it is a brainless exposition on being gangsta no matter what your motivations (dead wife, lust for power, lust for guns, etc.); the film is successful, however, because it doesn’t try to be anything more than what it is and still defies our expectation — that it will resort to cliché. Ellroy’s precocious story line is partially to thank for Street Kings’ high entertainment value: We believe, through every scene, that we know what’s going on. Ellroy’s script, however, somehow manages to manipulate the tried-and-true cop movie formula. The dialogue and characters, in turn, subtly defy what is expected of them as per gangsta movie cliché.
For example: The drug dealer is irrationally good natured. The girlfriend is not bootliciously hot, but enticingly graceful. British actor Hugh Laurie (best known as House M.D.) makes a surprising debut as the head of Internal Affairs. A potential informant, “Grill,” played in good humor by Bay Area rap star The Game, interrupts an assault at the hands of Detective Ludlow (and a phone book), by pointing out “you supposed to ask me a question first!” Ellroy knows the characters and our expectations of their roles; on top of defying our expectations, he’s able to inject a little bit of tongue-in-cheek.
To tell the muthafuckin’ truth (while hopefully managing to avoid getting hit repeatedly in the head by Detective Ludlow and his phone book), Street Kings is not a cinematic masterpiece. It is not genius or poignant and it is rarely innovative. It’s hard to pretend that we are watching for the scenes without drugs or violence — Reeves is rather lackluster, even around a sexy Martha Higareda. However, Street Kings somehow manages to keep us watching, flinching at the sight of bullet wounds and moldy corpses in trash bags. It is a breed of film spawned from the joint success of Grand Theft Auto and The Departed — watching it elicits the joy only possible through intensely crafted cinema, and allows us to pretend that we are part of a vicious, yet picturesque, world that we know cannot be entirely real.