Monday, April 14, 2008

Street Kings

By Elise Nakhnikian

“We’re the police. We can do whatever we want,” says Detective Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves) in Street Kings. “Doesn’t matter what happens: It’s how we write it up.”

Reeves’ Tommy (as most of the guys call him) is a 21st-century Dirty Harry. A maverick in conflict with his own department, he acts as judge, jury and executioner to the suspects he tracks down. But in this casually fascistic vigilante fantasy, that implacable drive to hunt people down and kills them makes him not a sociopath but a hero – or, as Tommy’s captain puts it, “the tip of the f--ing spear.”

Street Kings is nonstop action, but most of its tension comes from the interplay between Tommy and his captain, Jack Wander (Forest Whitaker), who seems to be on the scene whenever Tommy needs rescuing from the trouble he keeps slipping into.

Reeves’ Excellent Adventure-era California cool has solidified into a mask-like stiffness that fits this character nicely. Tommy is a none-too-bright middle-aged hard guy gone a bit to seed. His stubbly jowls, heavy gait, and constant procession of airplane-sized bottles of vodka mark him as a man in retreat from life – and so do Reeves’ guarded eyes.

Reeves’ underacting is thrown into relief by Whitaker’s overacting. When the captain gets worked up – and he usually does – spit flies out of his mouth, his face glistens with sweat, and Whitaker’s wider eye works overtime to register emotion. The actor is the epitome of soulful peace in that phone ad where he talks about spirituality, but in recent roles like this one and his Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, he looks like he’s about to blow a gasket. You feel his pain, all right, but you don’t want to sit too close to the screen.

Street Kings was cowritten by James Ellroy, who wrote the story it’s based on. It was directed by David Ayer, who wrote Training Day. Both men are LA natives who specialize in hard-guy stories about cops, criminals, and the permeable line between the two. But Street Kings, like Training Day, has a hyperbolic adolescent swagger that undercuts the hard-edged realism it strives for. Several other directors turned down the script – including Spike Lee, which is a pity. His version of Ellroy’s cynically hopeful urban drama might have been a minor classic.

You wouldn’t want to live in Tommy’s world, but it’s a titillating place to visit. There’s a gun or a body in every car trunk and a double-cross around every corner. And there are plenty of colorful characters, like the cocky Sergeant Clady (the nicely acerbic Jay Mohr) and the enigmatic Terence Washington, Tommy’s former partner. Terry Crews, who played President Comacho in Mike Judge’s underappreciated Idiocracy, plays Washington with just the right amount of gravity - and a face that would fit right in on Mount Rushmore.

There are a couple of token love interests – most notably Washington’s babelicious wife, played by the always riveting Naomie Harris – but the only real love on display is the bond that forms between brothers in blue.

There’s no love lost between Tommy and the criminals he chases. He tracks one down by getting him snarled up in barbed wire – and leaves him there, howling in pain, after questioning him. That kind of police work looks awfully ugly. But, according to Street Kings, it has to be done – to “keep the animals at bay,” as Captain Wander puts it.

When the first of the Dirty Harry movies trumpeted that message, a lot of people dismissed it as fascist propaganda. But we’re in the age of Dexter now, and a movie like this raises barely a peep of protest.

Have our streets become that much more violent over the past 30 years? Or are we being brainwashed by the politics of fear?

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