Empire (UK), June 2008

Street Kings

by Ian Nathan


Implicated in the shooting of a fellow cop, dissolute LA detective Tom Ludlow (Reeves) finds himself caught between the protection of his tight-knit department and a growing sense he may not be working for the good guys at all.


From the brilliantly profane and testy mind of crime novelist James Ellroy and director David Ayer, who wrote the script for Training Day, comes a tale of police corruption amid the drug strewn gang-banging culture of LA’s sleazy underbelly. Well, what were you expecting, High School Musical 3? It’s that bad news from a bad town vibe again, where everybody’s on the take and by the messy close, bodies mapping a bloody line from Compton to the Hills, you’ll feel in need of a hot, cleansing shower.

In fact, scrape away the contemporary veneer - smears of neon and sun-baked tarmac - and this is a reboot of LA Confidential, where departmental battering ram Bud White is now named Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves), but is every bit the same loner in search of a soul. His will be a redemptive arc as he tracks down apples even more rotten bobbing about in the brotherhood of the LAPD. It’s Ellroy’s habitual mythology - the higher you go, the deeper the sin. Zero points for originality, then, but there’s no missing the satisfying nastiness of good police procedural, packed with gut punches like Serpico or Q&A, that stagger into view too infrequently these days.

As Ludlow, Reeves channels the Nick Nolte/Russell Crowe school of hulking law enforcement: pummelling witnesses with telephone directories, swigging mini-bar vodkas at the wheel, and tossing out casual racial slurs with the clean zing of one-liners. It’s not as if the pimps and dealers and rapists have any rights… They deserve it. Right? This is a totally new Reeves, or a totally old one. He’s never looked so worn out, built like an ox but all his boyish attraction is sunk beneath sallow, potholed skin and piss-hole eyes. The film opens to the nag of an alarm and we witness Neo pour himself out of bed, clutch his wrung-out face, and fetch up gobs of bile into a toilet bowl. Like woah dude.

This is a good look for the film, the booze-broken future of Johnny Utah, and liberated from movie star drag Reeves thrives. It’s arguably the strongest thing he’s ever done, snaring his natural charm with the dangerous, swirling forces of an innately violent man. The supporting cast of reliable faces have a ball spitting out the peppery dialogue like tobacco. Everywhere you turn it’s excellent people from just off the Hollywood patch: Chris Evans, Forest Whitaker, Jay Mohr, Naomie Harris. Even our own Hugh Laurie, now a favoured ex-pat, lurks at the fringes of the plot as an internal affairs slimeball.

It leaves its mark, a film for grown-up tastes. And well worth storing up as relief from the impending glitterball gimmicks of summer. The challenge with Ellroy, however, has always been the endless onion peel of his plotting - there are so many layers within layers, a machine gun fire of names, crimes and cover-ups, that any film adaptation (and this is original story and script only) has to race to keep track of his sprinting mind. Ayers hasn’t the pace; we get a barrage of terrifically gritty scenes that gang up into a bewildering whole. He handles the requisite close-quarter gunfights, creating jagged, bloody bursts of brutal action, but for all the electricity in the script the succession of shock revelations push this neo-noir hell close to absurdity.


Another mean, violent and decently acted slab of Ellroy-flavoured criminality, with an impressively battered Keanu Reeves, but Ayers is no Curtis Hanson.

3 / 5

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