The way of the gun
Whoa: Keanu Reeves is lone bright spot in Street Kings
by Katrina Onstad
In the bad cop thriller Street Kings, Keanu Reeves finally loses his teenage prettiness. That seems not only thematically appropriate, but evidence of a just universe; he got off untouched for a lot longer than most of us. In the film’s opening scenes, Reeves is puffy, pasty and as light-averse as a mole rat. His character concludes a round of vigorous gun cleaning by vomiting into a toilet, and then speeds through the streets of L.A. with a trunkload of artillery, all the while devouring airplane bottles of vodka like a cartoon cat dropping a mouse down his throat.
Within minutes, Reeves busts into a drug den of Korean gangsters and unloads a firestorm of bullets into a bunch of kidnappers who are watching TV, weighing drugs, sitting on the toilet — gangster stuff. He then plants guns on corpses to make it look like a fair fight.
As if you — a skeptical product of our morally ambiguous times! — couldn’t guess, Reeves is that cinematic standby, the good-bad hybrid known as the loco cop, the rogue law enforcer who no longer believes in the capital-L law. For decades, the cop hepped up on substances or greed or both has been the go-to protagonist of action movies that want to fortify the violence with a little psychodrama — think of Serpico, Assault on Precinct 13, The Departed.
Director David Ayer, not yet 40, is responsible for three of the most recent additions to the dirty-cop genre. He wrote and directed Harsh Times (2005), with Christian Bale as a druggie wannabe policeman; more famously, Ayer wrote the script for Training Day (2001), where Denzel Washington plays against type as a strutting, trigger-happy undercover officer in a do-rag. (I felt for the poor, overchewed scenery, but it got him an Oscar.) Street Kings is the latest in Ayer’s police-skepticism trifecta, but this one was scripted by crime novelist James Ellroy (with Kurt Wimmer). Ellroy likes a cool jazz backbeat with his L.A. sleaze; it’s a flimsy city, not sexy, made of modest houses and neighbourhoods where the promise of the California frontier has been snuffed. Ellroy’s is an L.A. where no one really sees the sun.
Since Rodney King, the LAPD can’t shake its reputation as the most racially explosive police force in the U.S., and the all-prejudiced-all-the-time copper has become such a movie cliché that what would really shock is seeing an L.A. policeman on screen who could order a doughnut without a racial slur (“Lemon cream, my good fellow!”).
Reeves will not be quite so progressive. He plays a vice squad cop named Tom Ludlow who, while undercover as an arms dealer, taunts two Korean hoods with a Do the Right Thing-worthy string of racial epithets. The guys don’t dig the lingo. “Saying ‘konichiwa’ to a Korean is offensive, white boy!” one of them explains before pounding Ludlow into the cement. (Hmm… white boy? It’s either very cool colour-blind casting or distracting strangeness to see Reeves playing a (maybe) racist cop. Reeves is of English-Hawaiian-Chinese descent, and in his new, lumpier state, he actually looks like an Asian Tom Berenger.)
Ludlow is muscle, sent in to do the squad’s dirty work by his mercilessly ambitious boss, Capt. Jack Wander (Forest Whitaker). After Ludlow annihilates the Koreans and frees the little girls they were holding captive, he gets a hero’s embrace from the city. Everyone is happy to overlook Ludlow’s pathological disregard for law. “You went toe to toe with evil and you won,” says Capt. Wander, cheerfully cleaning up the mess.
The crooked cops are at odds with the department’s internal affairs division (run by Hugh Laurie, with typical irritability). Ludlow’s former partner, Det. Washington (Terry Crews), is black; they were the first racially mixed pair on the force, but Washington went straight and started snitching out his former cohorts. When he’s suddenly mowed down by two gunmen in a convenience store, the ensuing investigation leads Ludlow into a rat’s maze of double identity and violence.
There are certain things that Keanu Reeves will never be able to do as an actor, hemmed in as he is by his laconic surfer inflection and sweet dimness. But Street Kings is a film where those qualities serve him well. Ludlow is a galumphing lapdog, and as the corruption around him swells and the scales drop from his eyes, Reeves gets several opportunities to deliver oh-man-I’m-an-idiot reaction shots. This he can do. The patronizing attitude his fellow officers direct Ludlow’s way perhaps mirrors how Reeves’ critics feel about him as an actor: Handsome little simpleton. But the body that proves to be something more — brainy, as in The Matrix, or heartfelt, as in Street Kings — is the kind of acting that Reeves pulls off easily, and we like him for it.
Too bad his solid performance is surrounded by a film that is only distinguished from all the others in its genre by extra-high blood-loss levels. Street Kings makes the body-splattering Training Day look like an episode of Dora the Explorer. But it’s not only the violence that’s amped; as Ludlow goes deeper into the mystery of his partner’s murder, the corruption he unearths is so extreme, so high-reaching, that you half expect Dick Cheney to walk in and get implicated, too.
That may, of course, be exactly the point: The most interesting (and generous) reading of Street Kings is as a contemporary political allegory, with the LAPD as just another system that rewards corruption, falsehood, avarice. In other words, this is an anti-Bush administration movie about America’s abuses of authority, and a return to the romantic vigilantism of post-Watergate films like Deathwish. A recent article by Ross Douthat in The Atlantic Monthly notes that since the “war on terror” began, American filmmakers have responded not with jingoistic, ’80s-style action, but a darker, more incredulous version of America.
Street Kings, despite its literary pedigree, lacks the poetry of No Country for Old Men or There Will Be Blood, but it tops both for sheer cynicism. Why shoot someone two or three times if you can unload a machine gun into them for several rounds? The repetitive dullness of this violence weakens any anguished portrait of a system collapsing in on itself. Street Kings is just another cop movie turned on by the corruption it pretends to abhor; it’s blow hard, not blowback.
Street Kings opens April 11.