Street Kings Review – So Close It Hurts
I decided to take in Street King’s offer of gritty film noir played out on a different side of Los Angeles than we usually see. And it was . . . a very mixed bag, but ultimately, worth the money. To start with the good, I think the plot was intriguing—no surprise to Ellroy fans–and the movie certainly hummed along. No sneaking of peeks at your watch, wondering why you were only at the half way mark. And the camerawork is outstanding at bringing the gritty L.A. streets to all too believable life. Keanu Reeves (Ludlow) does a rock solid job–his voice, which sometimes sinks a role for him (Much Ado About Nothing, anyone?) works for this character, and he brings intensity and commitment to Ludlow’s weary, angry and ultimately bewildered soul. Hugh Laurie (Biggs) brings the same intensity to his steely ambitious power broker. Ludlow’s desperate desire to see in black and white so he can live with his losses and his successes makes him a pawn in a game he doesn’t know he’s playing. Laurie’s Biggs is a man who knows exactly what complex game he’s in and how to play it—and their scenes together are the most successful in the film at getting the audience to look past the characters’ differences to ask what they share.
A movie playing around in film noir territory with good actors should be able to resonate on more levels than a fast paced action movie with the attractive results of months at the gym on display. Here, the story skeleton is solid–Ludlow is in a terrible bind and you really don’t know who he can trust. The movie presents us with a series of ironies, which never settle into any one moral position. One scene resonates with another to disturb each conclusion we have just been encouraged to make. Ludlow looks like a racist thug, a hero, a corrupt cop—and that’s just in the first five minutes. Ultimately, he’s that American icon, the lone gunfighter, except he’s also what should be the opposite—the puppet on a string. The journey we take with Ludlow in untangling who’s pulling his strings is not a new concept, but done well, this sort of exploration is always worthwhile. This movie is so close to doing it well, it hurts. Reeves, who is in almost every scene, nails the brute force mixed with painful morality that propels Ludlow into his career of what ultimately is a contract killer with a badge. Laurie effectively creates a character who slips between the aligned forces, merging morality with ambition so seamlessly we’re as appalled at the end of the movie as we were at the beginning. The other supporting players are also good, Cedric the Entertainer and Common in particular creating memorable characters who bring the streets to life. Chris Evans, too, does fine work with his everyman character longing to make his mark.
Unfortunately, Street King’s script–good Lord, who tinkered with that?—lets the actors down. I realize the dialogue is supposed to be somewhat stylized, but style isn’t what I got–I got the most clichés riddling the dialogue I’ve heard in a long while and unfortunately, not because the movie is parodying a genre. The writers took the kind of lines a movie needs really great writing to get away with once and gave those lines to characters with a frequency that defies belief. Besides being off-putting on the believability front, the dialogue didn’t give us much of a peek into the players because there were so many opaque or just silly lines at crucial moments, while key lines were sometimes thrown away, lessening their impact. One shouldn’t have to strain to hear Captain Wander (an over the top Forest Whitaker) say that Tom is always Tom, and once fixed on a problem, he never gives up, because although the vice captain has been capitalizing on this trait for years, he’s caught as flatfooted by it as any criminal.
Whitaker’s take on Wander misfires for most of the film, though he pulls off his end scene. We should be as torn as Ludlow as Biggs and Wander fight over him, one with an arm around Tom’s shoulders, the other in shadow from the sidelines. But Wander has such a psychotic vibe from his opening scene, we’re left instead to wonder why Ludlow is, as one of his team mates puts it, such a chump about the men he works with, especially given his role on the squad. That leaves the field to Biggs, but we don’t get enough of him to fill the space that should be occupied by Wander. To effectively illuminate the murkiness of the culture charged with enforcing morality, we need to see through Wander’s eyes, too. Our distance from that key character weakens the sense of irony about concepts like good and evil underpinning the story. The movie almost makes it as a genuinely troubling moral as well as physical landscape, and that’s probably the most disappointing aspect.