When I was in college, someone broke into my car and stole everything in it — Christmas presents and, most important, my trumpet. Before my next gig, the police called. They had recovered my horn.
The evening of the concert, the detective on the case was there. I thanked him for the recovery and, as an aside, informed him that the loss would have been covered by my parents’ home insurance. He then informed me that if I had mentioned the insurance coverage, we could have “worked something out.” It was one of those “duh” moments; for a second I felt like a fool. If only I knew the way things really worked.
Watch “Street Kings” and you will conclude that when it comes to police departments, my old detective friend is the norm. Cops may rightfully hand out tickets to speeders, run down marauding teens who pilfer old ladies’ purses, and watch out for perverts down the block. But as a bunch of enforcers, cops are vigilantes, adhering to a “bleed-blue” code that other citizens would never understand.
Working from a script by James Ellroy, a writer with a sharp ear for street lingo and a fine writer to boot, David Ayer, who gave us “Training Day,” introduces us to L.A. Detective Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves), a widower who will go solo into a denizen of Asian killers, and, before he plants phony evidence, mow them down, rescuing two kidnapped girls in the process. Furious, his compatriots accuse him of grandstanding.
Before long and in a wildly improbable coincidence, Ludlow will track an ex-partner-turned informant (Terry Crews) into a 7-Eleven, whereupon two hooded invaders kill the snitch and leave Ludlow a suspect.
Like this everywhere?
Despite his tendency to swig Vodka and play it loose with rules of evidence, Ludlow is one of the better cops; at least, that’s what we learn before the movie ends. If anything, do not accuse “Street Kings” of being subtle. It’s the crooked-cop story taken to absurd heights of lunacy. Everyone is involved, partly because on almost every level in the L.A. Police Department, cops have something on officials, including politicians who make laws. May we conclude the same is not true in every other American city?
Rodney King is the tip of the iceberg, and as if to emphasize police harassment, we have a sequence in which Ludlow sits at a desk taking complaints from citizens who say cops have messed with them. You sense they are telling the truth and that these reports will go nowhere.
Swimming in bloody violence, “Street Kings” has plenty of holes, and it is way over the top. But you also have the sense that the filmmakers are not trying to exaggerate. It’s not all clichés. You may leave the theater concluding it’s too awful to be true or so entrenched in truth that there is simply nothing anyone can do about it.
Aside from Reeves, Forest Whitaker shows up as a commander, Jay Mohr as a fellow cop, Cedric the Entertainer as a street thug, and Hugh Laurie as the obligatory investigator from internal affairs.
DIRECTED BY David Ayer
SCREENPLAY BY James Ellroy, Kurt Wimmer and Jamie Moss, based on story by Ellroy
STARRING Keanu Reeves, Forest Whitaker, Hugh Laurie, Cedric “The Entertainer” Kyles, Jay Mohr, Terry Crews and Naomie Harris.
RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes