Street Kings

dir: David Ayer
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For my money, any film based on a screenplay that James Ellroy worked on is necessary watching. Obligatory watching. It would be a crime not to.

Now that I think about this a bit more, I start to wonder why this should be the case. Sure, LA Confidential did all right, and I really liked Dark Blue. But Black Dahlia is one of the worst things I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t really Ellroy’s fault: we can parcel out the blame to superhack Brian DePalma, Josh Hartnett’s beady little eyes and complete inability to act and a whole host of bad actors looking foolish and acting worse.

Then again, since it was a pretty ludicrous story, maybe it was Ellroy’s fault. For all the gritty crime writing he’s been responsible for, he also, like Stephen King, had a long period of time working fuelled by stimulants, whereby both have written lots of stuff neither remembers writing at all. And it shows, if you know the respective time periods involved.

He remains, though, someone I very much respect in the field of crime writing. I’m not sure how well his work meshes with the world of David Ayer, whose script for Training Day trod a very Ellroyesque path of very corrupt cops doing very corrupt things, but it would seem to be a natural fit.

Ayer no longer bothers with the petty hackwork of screenwriting, and instead graces the world with his utterly graceless flicks like Harsh Times and now Street Kings, starring Keanu Reeves. All these stories transpire in a Los Angeles more violent and more fraught with peril than even its real world counterpart. And it’s also an LA where the cops are more dangerous than the crims.

Yes, THAT Keanu Reeves. In a serious – serious role. We know he’s serious, because he wakes up clutching a gun, then throwing up, then drinking booze before heading off to work. And what a piece of work it is. Serious stuff.

Without any reveal as to identity yet, we see him confront and provoke some Korean thugs into beating him up and stealing his car. He then proceeds to track them down and kill them all, saving two kidnapped teenage girls in the bargain.

Even though he’s a cop, none of this really strikes anyone in the audience watching this all play out (or at least it shouldn’t) as being legal. Detective Tom Ludlow, who is little different from every other Ellroy cop that’s ever been committed to page or film, gets the job done. He’s ruthless, absolute determined to exact ‘justice’, not shy about using violence to achieve desired outcomes, and happy to murder unarmed crims since they had it coming anyway.

Now, I don’t know about you, but this kind of character being upheld even for a while as the fantasy paradigm of what cops could/should be able to do if only the hampering restraints of internal affairs watchdogs, political correctness and do-gooderism could be severed from them, worries me. Ellroy is on the record as both a staunch conservative and a staunch supporter of the LA police department. I’m not so dense as to equate what he does in fiction with what he believes should be occurring on the streets and crime scenes of Los Angeles. There are persistent motifs and a persistent darkness to Ellroy’s worldview which permeates everything he touches, and Detective Ludlow, the Vice unit he is a part of and the LAPD as it exists, are just another recreation of that.

There are two kinds of cops in Ellroy’s worlds, and both are corrupt in the sense that they hold themselves to be above the laws that they are meant to uphold. The first kind, who usually constitute his ‘heroes’, are only corrupt in the sense that they righteously kill deserving criminals and actively work to cover up evidence of their actions, but they don’t abuse their power over innocent civilians. But crims and other cops are fair game.

The second kind, who are always the true villains, are corrupt cops whose badge compels them to steal, rape, deal and murder with impunity. The system, as it exists, is staffed top to bottom by corrupt, weak or self-serving cops who cannot do anything about the really, REALLY corrupt ones. Only the righteous ‘good’ kind of corrupt cop, like Keanu’s character, can really take out the worst cops, because the system doesn’t allow for it otherwise.

That’s pretty bleak, but it does make for some violently entertaining trash.

To describe any elements of the plot would really be pointless. Street Kings has exactly the same plot as LA Confidential and Dark Blue. The time periods are completely different, obviously the casts are completely different, and the details differ as well. But the plots and the resolutions are exactly the same.

I hope that doesn’t constitute a massive spoiler for readers who were thinking of hiring this flick down the track. But the thing is, knowing only that Ellroy was involved in the screenplay, I knew exactly how everything was going to play out ten minutes into the flick.

It’s not that it’s predictable; it’s just that it's Ellroy. Violent decent older cop tries to get to bottom of crime, which police are both victims of and involved in and actively cover up hideous crime. Violent cop and other, perhaps younger idealistic cop willing to become violent and corrupt (but still righteous) in violent cop’s image, work together eventually to solve crime. Young cop always, always, always dies (either murdered or through suicide), making older violent cop feel guilty, so guilty in fact that he eventually takes down the big boys behind the crimes, who are always his immediate and higher-up bosses in the LAPD who he’s colluded with for decades. It doesn’t involve courts and due process, just the cold harsh reality of several bullets passing through viscera, spines and faces.

It is a film I could read like Braille, and even as predictable as it was, it still manages to be less than the sum of its meagre parts. Most of the actors are terrible, even for the purposes of a generic crime cop movie they out-cliché cliché, to the point where cliché wants to scurry away with its tail between its cliches. Forrest Whitaker overacts worse here as Ludlow’s supervisor than he did playing maniac despotic tyrant Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland a couple of years ago. Just think about that for a second. Let that singularly impossible concept bloom within your mind, until it explodes outwards and sprays grey matter all over your screen.

For all the visceral thrills and spills, it has to be said that David Ayer is a terrible director. I can tolerate the hyped up alternate LA that he so enjoys depicting, but when it comes to directing scenes and eliciting performances from actors, he gives his productions all the quality of a mediocre tv cop show from the 80s.

But for all its pointless genericness, I still really enjoyed Keanu in the lead role. He doesn’t (credibly) get to play these roles most of the time, and for good reason, but it’s entertaining in and of itself to see him trying to play complicated humans in simplistic stories. He does embody the essence of the Lloyd Hopkins/Bud White/Eldon Perry/out of control but somehow still ‘righteous’ cop that Ellroy masturbates over, but the story kind of lets him off the hook with a pat ending not in keeping with the rest of the tone of the story.

On the other hand, it’s perfect from the point of view that even Internal Affairs cops chafe under the strictures of their responsibilities, and occasionally realise that the only way to take down powerful, corrupt cops is by using violent ‘righteous’ corrupt cops to take them down. It’s brainless, but it could work, I guess.

As I said, it’s a morally murky foundation but it can make for entertaining movies, which is kinda the idea, after all, especially when you’re signing on to watch a violent cop crime drama. The police procedural aspects work okay, the (very modest) growth of Ludlow’s character from a violent monster who doesn’t give a damn, to being a violent monster that gives something of a damn, and the tense shootouts and grim realities of what cops out past that edge might be like mean the film isn’t a complete waste.

Of course, whatever pleasure I derive from watching this flick is guilty pleasure, as exemplified by my favourite scene. There is something immensely pleasurable about watching Ludlow beat awful rapper The Game over the head with a phonebook. A to K, L to Z? White Pages, Yellow Pages? It doesn’t matter, because the scene becomes utterly brilliant when Ludlow’s protégé, played by Chris Evans, points out to him once the beating has been going for a while, that Ludlow actually needs to ask him some questions if he wants the guy to respond to the beating by answering them.

Comparisons will abound with other stuff like Training Day and the better Ellroy flicks, but truth be told, Training Day went south about two thirds of the way through and never recovered, and all of the stuff mentioned in this melting pot of cinematic extravaganzas are pretty trashy, pulpy properties anyway. They’re enjoyed with the guts, the adrenals and the balls or ovaries; not with the head, which sees through the bad psychology and even worse sociology to glimpse the empty desperation beneath.

6 times I never thought I’d be forgiving enough towards any film with Kanooie Reeves in a lead role ever again after the Matrix fiasco out of 10

“Once your eyes were opened, there was no other outcome” – apart from leaving the theatre early, perhaps, Street Kings