Make no mistake: I’m not pretending to be shocked—shocked!—that studio films at times assume their audience is on an equal intellectual footing with The Moment of Truth contestants. When a movie is trying to strike a posture of gritty urban realism, however, the thick-headed cinematic clichés get particularly hard to take. Street Kings does just about every lazy thing a movie can do, then makes you feel even dumber for not walking out an hour earlier once you’ve already figured everything out.
But no, we need to go through the motions as we watch Ludlow in action, the baddest of “shoot first, plant evidence later” badasses who’s not about to let procedure get in the way of nailing child pornographers and other inarguably bad guys. His equally by-the-black-book commander, Wander (Forest Whitaker), has his back, but a nosey internal affairs detective (Hugh Laurie) and Ludlow’s straight-arrow former partner Washington (Terry Crews) threaten to expose his tactics. It’s convenient, then, that Washington is gunned down during a convenience-store holdup—a crime Ludlow is determined to solve with the help of a homicide detective (Chris Evans) no matter how obvious it is that he will be able to handle the truth even less than Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men.
With direction by David Ayer (the screenwriter for Training Day) and a story credited to L.A. Confidential author James Ellroy (who practically invented the “corrupt L.A. cops” genre), it seems like Street Kings should at least have verisimilitude going for it. Only an almost perversely deliberate act of artistic sabotage, then, could create something so unbelievable in so many different ways, despite its occasional flashes of clever dialogue. Ludlow’s polymorphous brand of alcoholism turns him into the kind of guy who both polishes off cases of beer and swigs from airline bottles of vodka. His girlfriend of convenience/personal nurse (Martha Higareda) occupies screen time apparently only to make it clear that Ludlow isn’t gay. Ayer succumbs to that incredulity-straining device, the magic television that turns on the exact news report relevant to our characters—and even has another character seemingly predict what will pop up on the screen. Preposterousness covers everything like a thick gravy.
But that’s nothing compared to the central “mystery” of the film’s plot—and rarely have scare-quotes been so applicable that they should also be underlined and in boldface type. I’m not saying that Ludlow is the worst detective ever if it’s not immediately obvious to him what’s going on, but … no, wait, yes I am. Call it a “spoiler” if you wish—I’ll wait here while every masochist who wants to see the movie unsullied turns away—but Street Kings trots out only perfunctory feints and dodges before going exactly where you already knew it was going to go. The “what just happened” expository speeches are as tedious as they are unnecessary; the “why did they do it” speech comes at a point when character motivations have long since proven irrelevant.
It’s testimony to Street Kings’ narrative ineptitude that I haven’t even had time to mention the performance by Reeves, that cinderblock of cinematic thespianism. Indeed, at least part of the aforementioned paint-by-numbers opening could be attributable to not trusting Reeves to convey anything internal through actual acting. Maybe the film could have stood a chance if his part had gone instead to Evans, who at least has enough personality to give the movie a jolt of life. Then again, Ayer doesn’t seem interested in filmmaking decisions that add to the level of complexity. It only takes three minutes to understand Street Kings’ philosophy: “Keep it simple, and stupid.”