Street Kings (2008)
This is one of those films I did not see in theatres. It was a DVD rental discovery that I have been very pleased to have discovered. The cast is really what drew me to Street Kings – Hugh Laurie, Forest Whitaker, and what might seem like a swerve in Keanu Reeves. I am very much a Keanu fan from Bill & Ted to Point Break to Constantine and beyond. Yeah, I get why people takes jabs at him, but I’ve always enjoyed his work. Here, he turns in a very strong performance holding his own opposite some heavyweight acting talents. This is a very well conceived and executed film from David Ayer that I feel is exceptionally worthy of your time and attention.
Keanu Reeves stars as Tom Ludlow, a veteran LAPD Vice Detective who has struggled to navigate through life after the death of his wife. He’s a cop who chooses to cutout procedure on the street taking violent action against known criminals to close a case. He is well protected by his Captain Jack Wander (Forest Whittaker) every step of the way. However, when evidence implicates Tom in the execution of his former partner turned Internal Affairs informant (Terry Crews), he is forced to go up against the cop culture he’s been a part of his entire career, ultimately leading him to question the loyalties of everyone around him. He is regularly confronted by Internal Affairs Captain Biggs (Hugh Laurie) who probes for the truth, but Ludlow views him as an enemy to be combated. However, as he partners with the untainted Detective Paul Diskant (Chris Evans) to weed through this shady, twisted maze towards his own answers, Ludlow comes to realize just how crooked this world is, and who his real enemies are.
I am a definite crime genre lover spawned from numerous Michael Mann films, and I also enjoy a solid cop drama. This brings it all to the table in a very grounded, emotional, but also entertaining package. It’s very smartly written to keep an audience on its toes as the secrets slowly rise to the surface. Bits of action are peppered throughout to keep the energy flowing in support of the plot. Ludlow goes on a shady journey trying to find out exactly where he stands in this crooked world of corruption and deception. This tangled tapestry unfolds to reveal a wealth of dangerous, twisted people with dark agendas.
Keanu really does kick it up to a higher level as Tom Ludlow. The character can be crass in certain moments, but also, show compassion when it matters most to him. There are some fine dynamics to the character that Keanu balances out with ease. There’s the ass kicking cop that throws down shots of vodka after wasting some criminals. There’s the contemptuous man trying to shake loose the truth that everyone seems very quick to sweep under the rug. There is also the slightly humorous side of Ludlow with a couple quips here and there which add to the crass attitude. He’s been protected through everything, and thus, has developed an attitude where he doesn’t take anything from anyone. He has an ego and a self-serving nature, but is able to direct it to his advantage on these unforgiving, violent streets. Everything he does, he believes is for the best, even if it’s crooked, but he grows and changes when confronted with just how crooked and screwed up everything has become. He’s the kind of character who is hardened by his fractured life and his harsh job, but when it comes down to it, he has a strong sense of humanity that he reserves for those who deserve it. Those who don’t get the ill end of his personality which is full of contempt and the will to act it out. Keanu Reeves handles this satisfyingly textured character with a lot of passion and charisma. He is an excellent lead for this film.
Of course, Forest Whitaker is amazing! The man has such a wealth of charisma and passion that it bleeds through in every scene. He inhabits Captain Jack Wander with a strong ego and bravado that none can contend with or deflate. He has pride in his men, but also conviction and authority over them. He’s very much a king high atop his throne where he has garnered respect and fear from those around him. He never comes off as a straight arrow, but supposedly does what he does because Ludlow is his creation. He covers up and cleans up whatever he needs to so that his star cop can keep burning down the street trash. Whitaker makes Wander an increasingly despicable person, but not one you can take your eyes off of. He has a larger than life presence that commands a scene, and that’s what the character needed. A man of power and guile that has the audacity to take on anyone that challenges him or his men. A man with his own dirty secrets that holds all the cards to play people however he wants. It is a brilliant performance that motivates his co-stars to push themselves further and harder.
Meanwhile, on a more reduced role, Hugh Laurie delivers an intelligent, subtle performance as Captain James Biggs of Internal Affairs. He carefully probes Ludlow throughout the film just giving him a little nudge here and there. As Laurie has proven in his many years portraying Dr. Gregory House, he can hold a scene smartly opposite anyone. It’s only one scene, but Forest Whitaker gives him a challenge to contend with. Laurie, as Biggs, stands his ground well. However, the rest of his scenes are opposite Keanu, and they both play them with an electric dynamic. They both portray strong characters offering up conflict fueled by Ludlow’s misconceptions. He doesn’t know what Biggs is really after, and Biggs doesn’t show his cards. He just let’s things play out with a little encouragement to make sure Ludlow takes the right critical steps.
The film is shot with some sharp style and edge. The cinematography continually maintains the energy of the narrative, and providing numerous inspired camera moves to punctuate certain dramatic beats. Thankfully, the style and edge never compromise the story being told, it merely services and enhances it. Everything in this film is conceived and executed properly. Every role is cast with a lot of thought and detail. Strong actors are implanted throughout the movie from the leads to the supporting roles.
Chris Evans adds an extra, different dynamic as the slightly green Detective Diskant. A cop interested in doing the right thing, and willing to push past his experience and limits to do so. He might not have as much streetwise mileage as Ludlow, but has the conviction to maintain his sense of justice. Evans strikes the right balance with him offering up enough inexperienced uncertainty mixed with confidence through trust. Evans & Reeves have a fine chemistry that is born out of the characters’ contrasts, as with most great pairings. That helps to maintain a lighter mood between them, and gives the film its balance of humorous moments. I feel Diskant is definitely a conduit for the audience to better connect with the story. Ludlow is clearly the lead, but Diskant is a little more relatable and helps to give Ludlow someone to connect with on the journey. Someone he can trust, and through Diskant, you can come to relate more with Ludlow.
What I really like about this film is how smart it is written. No character is conceived without a motivation for their actions, and nothing is dumbed down for the convenience of the plot. Everything fits together amazingly well. Screenwriters James Ellroy, Kurt Wimmer, & Jamie Moss delivered something very satisfying on multiple levels, and director David Ayer realized that with great balance and competence. The entire plot is well constructed, and gradually develops on-screen in a very coherent and intelligent manner. All the characters are written and played with a lot of personality and realistic depth. They all work well opposite one another to create a very diverse and interesting landscape for this crooked world. I literally have nothing negative at all to say about this film. To me, it should be considered a classic in the genre. I love the energy and momentum throughout the story to keep you hooked into where it is leading Tom Ludlow. That doesn’t mean there’s action all the time, just that the plot continues to develop adding new elements that drive the characters forward. Everything that develops motivates people and events towards more dangerous consequences until Ludlow is faced with the truth, but it’s not without it’s costs.
With Street Kings, there’s plenty of violent action, emotionally charged drama, serious danger, and fine dashes of humor to make it a very powerful, entertaining ride that’s worth taking. This is one of my favorite films of the last few years, and I give it my full, wholehearted recommendation! There is no fat in this film, just lean, strong talent that punctuates the story and characters.