2 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
"Street Kings" is one of those cop movies where all the main characters are out to get laid, paid, and made. There's a lot of dangerous hardware fired (both the character's mouths and their guns), but once the smoke clears and the principals speak, its obvious "Street Kings" should abdicate its claim of being an exciting, original urban action shoot 'em up. A cliché-riddled script and sleepy performances with all the inspiration of a tired factory worker clocking in at Three Mile Island means this street is empty.
A badly hung over Detective Tom Ludlow (ossified Keanu Reeves) rises laboriously from his bed to meet a pair of Korean gangsters who want to buy a machine gun from him. (Dude, would you buy a used anything from Reeves?) In a misguided attempt to intimidate the gangsters, Ludlow repeatedly slurs them. In a rare movie moment when you'll actually root for the bad guys, the gangsters vigorously introduce their fists to Ludlow's face and steal his car. Ludlow trails them to their hideout and storms in, riddling the bad guys and rescuing two kidnapped children, which was his covert mission. Knowing he's on the hook for murder, Ludlow stages the crime scene, making it look like the gangsters fired first. It's all in a day's work for Ludlow, who may not be on the take, but certainly rigs the law to meet out his fatal brand of street justice.
Ludlow is hailed as a hero, especially by his no-holds barred commanding officer, Captain Jack Wander (a tightly wound Forest Whitaker), who heads a unit of maverick cops willing to do anything in the name of the law. (Yes, here's yet another movie Whitaker appears in. This has to be some sort of a cinematic conspiracy.) Ludlow's former partner, Terrence Washington (tough guy Terry Crews), doesn't think he's a hero, and he's been talking to Captain James Biggs of Internal Affairs ("House" doctor Hugh Laurie, barely registering a brain wave), about investigating Ludlow and the rest of Wander's circumspect unit. Upset at Washington for ratting him out, Ludlow trails him to a bodega, intent on battering some sense into him. A pair of heavily armed robbers enters the store and it's obvious they're not packing all that heat just to snap into a Slim Jim. The assassins pump so many bullets into Washington that he dances like Pee Wee Herman with his BVD's full of Red Hots. Ludlow finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time -- on the store's security tape, accidentally putting another round into his badly holed partner.
As Warner tries to manipulate the subsequent investigation, rookie Detective Paul "Disco" Diskant (eager Chris Evans) and Ludlow pair up in an attempt to clear his name. With the help of a neighborhood informant (Cedric the Entertainer, sampling and failing at a dramatic role), Ludlow and Disco trace the DNA found at the scene to Freemont and Coates, a pair of abominable assassins for hire. As the duo digs deeper, they also discover the badly decomposed bodies of the real Freemont and Coates, who were liquidated before Washington became a magnet for bullets. So who are the imposters, and why would they take on the identities of two sadistic hit men? Ludlow and Disco strap on an arsenal and prepare to meet the fake Freemont and Coates:
Diskant: So we're just gonna go in there and kill 'em?
Ludlow: No. I'm gonna ask 'em some questions. Then we're gonna kill 'em.
I doubt any cop facing certain death has that kind of confidence. Even Sitting Bull was more aware of his mortality when he was about to annihilate Custer than Ludlow is in preparing to meet two psychotics who can block out the sun with their blood trail. And that's part of the problem with "Street Kings." All the characters are "street tough," yet no one seems to possess a brain stem. As Whitaker's Captain Wander points out: "Everyone's bad." The crooked cops, pusillanimous pushers and careless killers in "Street Kings" wouldn't last a millisecond in the real world. The characters emotions and actions are so transparent, irrational, and obvious, a lobotomized hillbilly could figure them out.
Will Biggs be able to derail Wander's corrupt ascent? And who's framing Ludlow? These questions are answered in blood-spattering, f-bomb invective-spitting action scenes that you'll figure out long before they unfold. The question is, will you be riveted to your couch long enough to see if Ludlow is pardoned or perforated? Probably not. You won't care, although Reeves' final act is a surprising and huge perversion of the law in a plot populated with illegal acts.
Keanu Reeves has acting ability of a melting Fudgsicle. He's grim-faced, puffy-eyed and dire. Fortunately, he seldom mumbles more than a sentence at a time. Part of Reeves' failure to convince lies in his character's irredeemable nature. It's hard to root for a character that indiscriminately terminates his enemies, even if they are villainous scum. Heroes are supposed to have a sense of virtue and rise above the notion of using violence to solve every slight, rather than crawl in same cesspool of moral decay as their adversaries.
Forest Whitaker has been playing lovable Pillsbury Doughboys for so long he's forgotten how to sneer like a true villain. In "The King of Scotland" he channeled the acts and attitude of Idi Amin, a real life madman, so he had plenty of documented examples of evil doings to work with. In "Street Kings," his character is more like Idi-not-so-mean. Whitaker's Jack Wander is completely over the top, in a Ricochet Rabbit on speed kind of way. From his first appearance, it's obvious that Wander is power tripping. He struts, screams, brags, cajoles and threatens in a manner that no modern police captain could get away with, even if he's got a colossal mound of dirt on everybody at City Hall from the Mayor down to the custodial engineer. Whitaker charges like a frothing rhino through his scenes, over exaggerating every word in order to compensate for the moth-eaten script. His exuberance only serves to make him look like an amateur.
Hugh Laurie battles Reeves for the honor of most cataleptic performance. Laurie spends most of the film hanging out of car doors, leaning across desks or ketchup stained tables in diners, his eyes barely open, pushing out his lines as if he's battling sleep apnea.
Chris Evans deserves a pardon for being one of the few actors who acts as if he hasn't already taken a fatal bullet. Diskant is another poorly written stereotype, the wet behind the ears, eager to see justice done rookie. In Evans' hands, Diskant's golly-gosh mentality is at least watchable.
Cedric the Entertainer takes a distinctly non-humorous turn as "Scribble," a cowardly neighborhood player who sets up the meet between Ludlow and Disco and the murder inc. duo of Coates and Freemont. Not so entertaining, Cedric.
Two minor characters (and relatively inexperienced actors) deserve to be crowned as the top performers in "Street Kings." Rap artist "Common" (Coates) is a warped tiger who's so convincing as a murder-loving brute, your colon will automatically lock up every time he draws a breath. Clee Shaheed Sloan (Freemont) is his equal, snarling like a rabid cur. Sloan's menace is natural even if his name isn't - he's a former L.A. gang member.
"Street Kings" is a profanity-laced cinematic release with all the gripping suspense of a bad episode of "T.J. Hooker." That Oliver Stone, Spike Lee, and Sean Penn bailed out of the project at various stages of development and David Ayres drew the short straw as director says it all. Ayres can write, having fashioned the plots for the superior cop epics "Training Day" and "Harsh Times," but he can't direct.
Be forewarned - "F" bombs detonate in the script with more frequency than the arrival of the next F Train, issuing unnecessarily from the likes of Reeves, Whitaker and Laurie, three nerds whose lips absurdly curl up as if they've never slurred in public before.
The publicity wheels have been churning out the news that Reeves will star in an unnecessary remake of the sci-fi classic, "The Day The Earth Stood Still." It isn't due to be released until next year, so you know there's a lot of crazy lucre riding on it. The impeccable 1953 original served as an allegory for America's rising fear of a worldwide nuclear holocaust. Not only is it one of my favorite end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it classics, (so the remake had better make my world stand still), I have a personal connection to its star, Michael Rennie. I nearly married his niece. Michael wouldn't have been able to attend the wedding anyway, having died 15 years earlier.
If Reeves assays Rennie's role of Klaatu, an emissary from another planet, he might be able to pull it off, since he certainly seems to be part alien. But he's better suited for the role of Gort, Klaatu's mute robot.
In the meantime, you can marvel at Reeves' acting ineptitude circa 2008. Treat yourself like a king or a queen and stay off this street.