High-stakes cop dramas nowadays need to find that balance between good and bad, right and wrong, action and story.
Having all flash and no cash is what plagues many of them: the filmmakers think that audiences don't care that the mayor's daughter or the fire chief's Dalmatian but how bullets will they fire from their guns, how many cars with they total or what building to they have to destroy to accomplish that.
Others simply toss together so inane, banal dialogue for over two hours and call it visceral drama when it should be called snooze cinema.
Ah, but dear readers, I know you are much more intelligent than that, and so do the filmmakers of "Street Kings."
LAPD Vice Detective Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves) is no simple black and white; he's more of a gray, blurring the distinctions of cops and the bad guys, such as setting up a couple of Korean gang members to steal his car that has a military-grade machine gun in the trunk-all to kick in their door, blow them away, and save twin girls being used as teenage objects of desire.
His direct superior, Capt. Jack Wander (Forest Whitaker), lauds Tom while turning a blind eye to how he made the big saves and arrests. However, Tom's methods don't come with a sense of guilt and depression as he downs shooters of vodka while patrolling the deep, gang-infested neighborhoods of the city of angels-all to cover the death of his wife.
Then, word comes to light that Tom's former partner Terrence Washington (Terry Crews) has been snitching on Tom and his fellow vice busting crew but Tom will be the sacrificial lamb, so to speak. When Tom shows up at a convenience store to talk to and try and reason with Terrence, two gangbangers bust in and shoot up the place-and Terrence. Video surveillance shows that Tom could be implicated in the crime.
Popping up is Capt. James Biggs (Hugh Laurie) from internal affairs, wanting to help Tom come clean and bust a few bad cops along the way. Meanwhile, Paul Diskant (Chris Evans) is the robbery homicide detective in charge of piecing together Washington's slaughter and teams with Tom "off the record," so to speak, in a separate, guerilla-style investigation and Tom's own brand of justice while discovering new and interesting details that twist along the journey.
This is the second film from director David Ayer, who's best know for writing the script to "Training Day," which gave Denzel Washington an immense amount of hard-hitting dialogue to construct a performance that garnered a Best Actor Oscar. During Ayer's directorial debut, 2006's "Harsh Times," he brought a similar powerful yet under appreciated performance from Christian Bale as an ex-Army ranger dealing with the mental trauma of the vast violence he's experienced.
For his sophomore effort, Ayer gave writing duties to another talented writer: author James Ellroy. Ellroy wrote the books that were transformed into the films "The Black Dahlia" and one of my personal favorites and arguably one of the bets films of the 1990s "L.A. Confidential" and he brings us a screenplay here with such vibrant, albeit colorful, language and a gripping story that is one of the year's first great screenplays-and one of the year's best films.
Reeves continues to show his unabashed dramatic talent that erases his "Bill & Ted" years: he's matured and grown into his own. And when you pair him up with such a powerhouse of an actor like Whitaker, sparks and emotion fly. Whitaker turns in yet another towering performance, another actor who earned his due just over one year ago when claiming the Academy Award for Best Actor for his commanding performance of dictator Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland." Also of impressive yet underused work is Hugh Laurie, who is conveniently introduced here at a hospital, an obvious yet still humorous, tongue-in-cheek reference to his famed status as the title doctor on the hit TV show "House."
In a way, the film plays a bit like an ensemble piece, but you can't share the wealth of these three talents.
Ayer is also good at painting a very accurate portrait of life in the crime-ridden areas of Los Angeles, including actors who were at one point gang members themselves and rappers known for their own hardcore image, including The Game and Chicago-native Common, who has a budding acting career ahead following last year's "American Gangster," this summer's "Wanted" with Angelina Jolie and a rumored part in Warner Bros' delayed "Justice League" as the Green Lantern.
I was with this movie from start to finish, even during the slightly uneven pacing of some parts of the film and the predictable, if not expected, ending. "Street Kings" doesn't have to worry about doing the job by the rules: it breaks them all to create tension, suspense and character that go beyond the laws of entertainment and acting.