Saturday, April 12, 2008

REVIEW: Street Kings

Navy vet turned writer/director David Ayer has been flying steadily under the radar for awhile now as a go-to guy for rough-edged L.A.-set crime thrillers, doing screenplay duties for "Training Day," "The Fast & The Furious," "SWAT," "Dark Blue" and his directorial debut "Harsh Times." That last film showed a keen eye for the sun-bleached haze of the urban West Coast, and the others have displayed a great ear for the sharp, violent language of the same - both serve him well (though he's now working from a script by James Ellroy and Kurt Wimmer from Ellroy's novel) in "Street Kings," a pitch-black police thriller that ranks as one of the most solid offerings in the genre since "Narc."

It should be said early that, while he gamely trudges onto screen looking impressively disshevled and doesn't pull out any of his familiar tics or signature inflections, Keanu Reeves still looks and sounds a bit too much like Keanu Reeves to seem immediately plausible as Detective Tom Ludlow - an amoral, rule-breaking, damn-near-sociopathic L.A. uber-cop - but after awhile it stops mattering. He wouldn't be anyone's first choice to play what amounts to "Dirty Harry with an innebriated moral-compass," but he ultimately makes it work.

Ludlow is the risk-taking pointman for an elite LAPD Vice unit tasked by Captain Wander (Forrest Whitaker) to use any means necessary to wipe out the city's most violent offenders. The unit employs Ludlow, notorious as "the last of the Ghetto Gunfighters," as a kind of one-man SEAL team: Able to shoot it out with entire housefuls of gangsters, plant evidence, arrange bodies and liberate hostages before anyone else - especially the dogged Internal Affairs chief (Hugh Laurie) - even gets there.

Things turn ugly(er) when IA and some of the city's less morally-flexible officers start making things difficult for Wander's rights-violating crew. When one "trouble making" cop is cut down in a suspicious gangland hit and Ludlow happens to be on the scene, favors get called-in to avoid the appearance of shady-doings by all and wagons get circled. All save for Ludlow himself, who may finally be snapping under the weight of his own guilt and sets out to solve the murder himself... putting him in deep with the city's deadliest criminals and potentially on the wrong-side of the corrupt, violent squad he helped create.

So, it's "Training Day" meets "L.A. Confidential," yeah. But I can think of WORSE movies to combine. You don't finally get a modern classic, but it's entertaining as all hell and packed with good actors cutting loose on frequently over-the-top roles - Whittaker, in particular, seems to be about to turn back into Idi Amin at any moment. Couple this with a twisty plot and visceral action, and I'm calling this one a reccomendation.