A Punch in the Gut
by MaryAnn Johanson
I’ve been seesawing with myself on Street Kings since... well, since I was sitting in the screening room watching it. It’s not an easy movie to recommend -- I can’t honestly be totally gung-ho on it -- but it’s not an easy movie to dismiss, either. It’s relentlessly grim, relentlessly brutal, relentlessly cynical in its depiction of corrupt cops as the only kind of cops there are, which the idealistic side of me doesn’t want to think could be possible and the realistic side of me can’t deny is within the realm of possibility. (Which I must qualify by saying that a good friend of mine is a cop whom I would be shocked to discover is any kind of dirty; but the tone of any given police force can be different than any of its individual members. And that’s what I mean here: that it’s easy to see that cop culture can be corrupt. Certainly there are only degrees of corruptness here in this movie -- no one is wearing a halo, not even a tarnished one.) It’s got kind of a 1950s hardboiled B-movie vibe to it, but it’s not exactly fun to watch: it’s unabashedly pulpy at the same time that it asks you, and justifiably so, not to write it off as mere pulp.
This is when it’s toughest for me as a film critic. I’m often accused of overintellecutalizing my reactions to movies, but the truth is that my primary response to a movie is from the gut, one that’s visceral and emotional, and then later the intellectualizing comes in trying to figure out why my gut had that reaction. But my gut can’t make up its mind on Street Kings, and so now I have to intellectualize and second-guess myself to figure out just what the heck it is I think about this film.
But I’m coming down on the see-it side of the line, which is a bit of going out on a limb for me because I think even those of you who’ve figured out that our tastes in movies are pretty well aligned may find that Street Kings leaves you cold. It’ll be interesting, in fact, to see who wants to yell at me because of this. And it’s actually kind of invigorating to find a movie that I’m not really sure what I think of it.
Part of why I’m going with a see-it is because of something that is a gut reaction, though one that is larger than this one movie. It’s something that I have been ridiculed because of before, and expect to be ridiculed because of again. Not that I care, because I’m being honest here. It’s this:
Keanu Reeves is not a bad actor.
I know I’m in a tiny minority of one here -- it’s considered good sport to invoke Reeves as the quintessential Hollywood nontalent. But I just don’t see it. He’s minimalist, as an actor -- I’ll give you that -- but I simply don’t see a lack of, well, anything. I do see a kind of earthy groundedness, a close-to-the-vest practicality that feels very much of the moment. I’m not saying he’s the greatest actor in the world or anything, but when I look at Reeves onscreen I see our suspicious, mistrustful, and hence self-reliant generation looking back -- if he’s pulled in, well, it’s because we all are. Maybe it’s too bad that this is the way we are, but this is the way we are.
Street Kings works if you buy Reeves (A Scanner Darkly, Constantine) in that capacity, as an unvarnishing mirror of exhausted but still thrashing 40ish Generation Xers. (Ted “Theodore” Logan is now 43 years old -- how did that happen?) It doesn’t make the experience pleasanter, but he serves as the wrapper for the package that makes it something more than just a pulpy actiony cop thriller. It makes the movie one gigantic sigh of frustration in the face of institutional, ingrained, woven-in-the-weft corruption and misanthropy and every-man-for-himself amorality -- the sense that this is the case crosses all our institutions but here it’s the Los Angeles Police Department, where Reeves’ Tom Ludlow is a decorated detective of many years’ service. And the extent of the rot in the LAPD as depicted here is almost impossible to describe, except, perhaps, like this: Ludlow is surrounded, of course, by a squad of officers, long his colleagues and buddies, and of course you know that the setup and takedown Ludlow appears to be the object of has got to be an inside job. But the usual game you play with yourself with this kind of movie -- trying to finger the bad guy before the movie lets you in on the secret -- doesn’t work here. The film -- directed by David Ayer, writer of Training Day and writer and director of Harsh Times, working from a screenplay by James Ellroy (The Black Dahlia, L.A. Confidential), Kurt Wimmer (Ultraviolet, The Recruit), and Jamie Moss -- simply isn’t working on that small a scale.
So neither is it the case that Ludlow is the lone noble officer who’s going to stand up for What’s Right amidst a sea of his fellow dirty cops. He’s not, and he isn’t. Just as a fish doesn’t see the water, Ludlow doesn’t see that there’s much particularly wrong about the way he and his brothers in blue do their jobs. Our introduction to Ludlow, in the jarring opening sequence, shows us a cop who is expedient particularly where matters of Constitutionally guaranteed civil rights of the accused are concerned, and a man who is a chronic alcoholic and reflexively violent and bigoted. In these first few minutes, Ludlow delivers a virulent racist tirade at two Asian lowlifes that could, theoretically, be argued away as merely that of an undercover cop maintaining his disguise as a lowlife himself, except that the cool smoothness with which Reeves delivers the bit leaves little doubt as to Ludlow’s own feelings on the matter.
Where things fall out from there involves an accusation by Ludlow’s former partner, who appears to be snitching to Internal Affairs about Bad Things Ludlow has done in the line of duty, and the further Bad Things that are the blowback of the IA investigation. (Hugh Laurie [Flight of the Phoenix, Valiant] as the IA captain is a particular standout among the rest of the terrific cast, which includes Forest Whitaker [Vantage Point, The Great Debaters], Jay Mohr [Seeing Other People, Simone], and Chris Evans [Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Cellular].) The plot is complicated, Ludlow even more so -- and Reeves’ performance is fascinating. Ludlow is a hothead, but Reeves doesn’t play him like one... doesn’t play him like a man who believes he’s a hothead, or like an actor who sees a chance to chew up some scenery with a role -- The Hothead Cop -- that is, by definition, over the top. When someone ends up dead just as, it appeared, Ludlow was on his way to kill that person himself, Ludlow defends himself against the accusation that he is the killer with: “I was just gonna break his jaw,” offered calmly and rationally, as if this were a perfectly reasonable thing to have been planning to do. And to Ludlow, it is. Reeves imbues Ludlow with a creepy menace that is totally appropriate and at the same time wonderfully surprising. It’s as if Ludlow is gritting his teeth all the time, not literally but inside, in his soul, or whatever blackened husk is left of it.
And just so you know, there’s nothing uplifting to come in the end, no answers to the impossibly large problems on display and only a twisted compromised nod to anything that even resembles justice. In the last few moments of the film’s climactic scene, I saw where Ludlow had to go in order to maintain a dramatically satisfying story and in order for the film not to sell itself out by giving in to convention... and thankfully, the film allows Ludlow to go there.
Well, I say “thankfully,” but all that means is that we’re left in bleak despair... which gets, if you can believe it, even bleaker a moment later, when it is suggested that all the rankness and vileness we’ve just been witness to is but one slender layer of a whole stinkin’ onion that has barely yet been hinted at. I guess my gut didn’t want to accept that, but couldn’t reject it, either.