April 17, 2008


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Street Kings (R)
Forest Whitaker shoves a couple of pages of The Shield’s script under his arm and wanders his way onto the set of Street Kings, a big goofy mess of a corrupt-cops-in-L.A. shoot-’em-up.

Whitaker really did take the cake the season he played the unhinged police officer investigating Vick Mackey on The Shield. Unfortunately, his character here isn’t nearly as meaty and, as so often happens when a concept that works great on TV (in this case, shades of corruption in the L.A.P.D.) hits the big screen, fitting all that character development and plot into just under two hours creates a jumble of clichés.

Detective Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves) is a plays-by-his-own-rules vice detective who we first get to know when he tracks, kills and then stages the scene around a bunch of bad guys (a gun dropped here, some shots fired there and Tom’s a “hero”). But when he finds out that his former partner Detective Terrence Washington (Terry Crews) is talking to internal affairs he realizes that the actual rules might bring him down. Unfortunately, before he can confront his former friend about this, Washington dies. Even more unfortunately, Tom is on the scene when Washington is gunned down. Tom soon finds himself in the position of having his fellow offers “cover” for him for the murder that they all assume he’s in on but which Tom actually wants to solve.

So, get all that so far? Tom’s in vice, his former partner was a fink and then the partner was killed in a shootout where Tom was present but not injured, leaving the police officers (who all know he was there but who officially say he was simply “first on the scene”) to assume Tom killed Terrence.

Tom is told by his commander, Capt. Jack Wander (Whitaker), to just sit back and enjoy some time riding a desk in the complaints department. He’s told by his fellow vice detectives just to relax and keep clear of Capt. James Biggs (Hugh Laurie), the internal affairs detective who’s sniffing around Tom. But Tom just can’t let the death of his former partner go and, even though he was in that convenience store in the first place to beat Terrence up for going to internal affairs, he’s determined to find the killers.

Got all that? There’s at least one more layer of plot setup after this before we get to the conspiracy that is really at the heart of the movie. And then there’s a twist. And then another one. And then it’s over.

Even if there were no The Shield, I think it would still be hard to watch Street Kings and not think how much better it would be as a TV show. We know who these characters are in large part because they’re variations of characters we already know from TV (and, to some extent, from L.A. Confidential, which shares with this movie its writer James Ellroy). Street Kings doesn’t so much give us the unfolding of an intricate plot with complex characters as it gives us the broad outline of these things and sort of lets other characters and plots fill in the holes. Over an entire season, I could see this movie — or some version of it with less showy dialogue — mellow and slow down. The holes will fill with scenes that show us the dangerous or kind or sad or thuggish or insecure parts of everyone’s characters and maybe even explain to us how what appears patently obvious to us in the audience about who is the real bad guy could be obscured from a smart if reckless detective. We would understand, at least in part, everybody’s motives and the demands and behavior of the system in which these people work (think now to The Wire where the system seemed to trump all human action).

If you crammed one season of The Shield into 107 minutes you’d be probably horrified and confused; a season of The Wire condensed into 107 minutes would have you ready to jump off a bridge. Street Kings isn’t quite so nuanced, so it only gave me a headache. C-

Rated R for strong violence and pervasive language. Directed by David Ayer and written by James Ellroy, Kurt Wimmer and Jamie Moss, Street Kings is an hour and 47 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Fox Searchlight.