For a movie built around questions of failed ethics and duplicitous behavior, Street Kings is just as dishonest as its characters. Though conceived as yet another sobering frontline report on law enforcement's ever-expanding gray area, director David Ayer's grim police thriller mostly plays as one long dick-measuring competition. You sense that an infinitely more complex drama exists within the film's grasp, but no one bothered to stop guzzling the testosterone long enough to find it.
Ayer's resumé only magnifies that disappointment. A screenwriter with credits on mega-macho pictures like S.W.A.T. and The Fast and the Furious, he also gave Denzel Washington his second Oscar with his Training Day script, a subtler look at male power relationships. And with his directorial debut, 2006's Harsh Times — an underrated buddy drama starring Christian Bale and Freddy Rodríguez as an unstable Iraq vet and his disreputable best friend — he further demonstrated a faculty for pinpointing the economic hardships and emotional impotence that spur guy's-guy bravado while simultaneously skewering its dead-end path. Unfortunately, such analysis takes a back seat in Street Kings, and all we're left with is the bravado — that and Keanu Reeves, who plays Los Angeles detective Tom Ludlow, an ethically slippery lawman reeling from his wife's death. (We know that he's an alcoholic because he repeatedly chugs mini-bottles of whisky, and that he's emotionally frozen because he looks like Keanu Reeves.)
Though worried that his former partner, Detective Terrance Washington (Terry Crews), might be ratting him out to Internal Affairs (personified by Hugh Laurie, in full House accent) for his past indiscretions, Ludlow knows that he's protected by his powerful boss in Administrative Vice, Captain Wander (Forest Whitaker), who dotes on his team of hardasses like a proud papa. But when Washington is gunned down in a seemingly random liquor-store holdup, Ludlow pushes to find his ex-partner's killers, despite Wander's warnings not to get involved.
From the setup, Street Kings is most certainly going to be a Chinatown-like mystery in which the flawed hero's quest will uncover layer upon layer of treachery within respected civic institutions while saving his soul in the process. But rather than use that framework for a larger exploration of, well, anything, the movie leans hard on the furled-brow banality of its message. The B-movie screenplay — credited to crime master James Ellroy, Ultraviolet auteur Kurt Wimmer and newcomer Jamie Moss — approaches its cautionary tale with an arsenal of dull tough-guy dialogue as the male characters take turns mowing down each other's masculinity when they're not delivering hard-boiled pseudo-knowledge about the nature of evil. ("Bad breeds bad" and "Blood doesn't wash away blood" are but two of the script's bons mots ready-made for a bumpersticker on your favorite nihilist's car.)
Ayer's background growing up in South Central Los Angeles (now dubbed "South Los Angeles" to separate the economically depressed community from the negative connotations — i.e., "drug-and-crime hotbed" — of its former name) has informed his films' vision of the city as a vibrant yet seedy multicultural mecca. But while his distinct eye gives Street Kings a pulpy vitality more realistic than Michael Mann's sleek, operatic City of Angels, Ayer understands his milieu far better than he does these characters, and he gets no help from his cast. It's easy to pick on Reeves's blank countenance, but he's actually at his best in roles that capitalize on his blissed-out vagueness (Parenthood, the first Matrix). Reeves can't fake "tortured," and that's Ludlow's only discernible trait — the film is meant to be his journey from burnout to avenging angel, but Reeves's glacial stare generates no heat, no pathos. As for the actors who make up the Ad Vice crew, several of them (including Whitaker, Jay Mohr and John Corbett) seem to have spent much of their preparation donning unconvincingly nefarious facial hair, as if to helpfully alert the audience that they might be up to no good.
For years, the hip-hop community has been criticized for its glorification of Scarface-style antiheroes, idolizing criminal behavior and its illicit rewards without focusing on the usually violent ends. But a film like Street Kings offers the flipside fantasy that's equally corrosive: the notion of the one righteous dude who gets his hands dirty operating outside the law in the name of justice. It's a myth that reaches as far back as Dirty Harry, and edgy contemporary TV dramas like The Shield at least question the morality of such a stance. But while Street Kings pines for a gritty realism and a corresponding wised-up attitude about the thin line between cops and robbers, it's hopelessly quaint at its core. The movie kicks your ass and takes your name because it doesn't know what else to do.