On the page, crime fiction is a deep and layered genre—not particularly hard to write, given its wide parameters of credulity, but clearly a bitch to write well. Authors who have the stylistic chops and plot-twisting creativity to weave a spellbinding crime tale are few and far between, and even more rare is the crime writer who can build that tale around a character—inevitably flawed—that a reader actually gives a shit about. (It’s interesting to note that Missoula has at least three such writers: James Lee Burke, whose buttery prose smoothes the rough edges off his main characters; James Crumley, who leaves the jagged edges right on his main men but writes his way around them; and Jon A. Jackson, whose style, roughly speaking, falls somewhere between the two.)
While it’s no Missoula, Los Angeles has produced its share of good crime writers, and James Ellroy is the leading light of that bunch. When Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential was made into an eloquently dense 1997 film, it seemed that crime fiction was on the cusp of a new age of noir, a reinvented genre that paid homage to the roots of Hammett and Chandler yet displayed an updated sensibility.
But the wooden characters and pretzeled plot of 2006’s The Black Dahlia, the next of Ellroy’s novels to be made into a major film, set the budding noir renaissance more than a few steps back despite Scarlett Johansson’s screen-steaming performance. So while it might be a bit melodramatic to call Street Kings—based on a story, and co-written, by Ellroy—a make-or-break film for the genre, it would be nice to say it at least made up some of the ground lost by Dahlia.
That’s a statement that can’t be made. Thanks to a plot at once so obvious and so obtuse it could have been co-written by Samuel Morse and George W. Bush, Street Kings implodes under the weight of its own stupidity.
Given the well-earned reputation of Street Kings’ leading man as a less-than nuanced actor, it might seem logical that Keanu Reeves’ performance has much to do with the movie’s failings. Surprisingly, though, Reeves is just fine in the title role of a maverick cop fighting forces he can’t understand (okay, so maybe it’s not a stretch to say Reeves is the right man for the stoic-but-clueless role). He’s always been a Labrador retriever of an actor—maybe not the smartest dog on the block but strong, soulful, and reliable enough to get the job done. And with age he’s taking on the stately air of a mature Lab. It’s the rest of the movie that collapses around him.
After a fairly conventional, noir-y open—wherein we see our hero (Reeves’ Detective Tom Ludlow, LAPD) wake up in a stupor, stare into the bathroom mirror with a mixture of self-loathing and sorrow, puke mightily, and down a couple of airplane-sized vodka bottles for breakfast—things get jumping in a hurry. Ludlow single-handedly busts into a house, killing all its occupants in a blaze of gunfire—taking a round from a sawed-off shotgun to his vest-covered chest in the process—and frees two young girls from their child-molesting captors. He then plants freshly fired weapons on the bodies and retreats back into the comfort of his renegade group of outside-the-law cops, lorded over and protected by the loquacious Captain Jack Wander (a gratingly over-the-top Forest Whitaker).
So there’s the message that begins the movie: cops are good, but they sometimes need to go beyond the law. The message at the end of the movie, as you could no doubt discern from your couch, even if that couch was on the moon, is that when cops go outside the law, they run the risk of corrupting themselves.
In between the twin messages, there’s plenty to scratch your head about. Ludlow follows his ex-partner into a convenience store to kick his ass. Instead, a couple of hooded gangsters walk into the place and proceed to light up the dude with the Tony Montana treatment, machine-gunning the poor bastard so thoroughly his body is held up by the bullets—though, it should be noted, that does not preclude the requisite pained stare/last gasp thing between the two men. Why would a cop use a convenience store, with its attendant security cameras, to exact revenge on a former colleague who may be ratting him out to internal affairs? So he can watch the ensuing events on video, again and again, as fuel for the new driving plot force: Yup, it’s a vengeance mission.
Ludlow actually buys the randomness of the event, believing it to be a simple stickup gone bad. He believes this despite the sudden interest of an Internal Affairs cop. He believes this, even after members of his own group have warned him to drop his revenge quest. So when a surprised look washes over Ludlow’s face when somebody suggests it might have been a hit, it’s not just a “Duh!” moment for the viewer, it’s also a precursor to the big reveal at the end, when Ludlow is the only one in the theater surprised to find his boss’ hand in the cookie jar.
For the price of two movie tickets and some popcorn, you can buy and share one of the fine books by Burke, Crumley or Jackson. Now that’s a no-brainer you can sink your teeth into.