Review by Gordon Justesen
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Forest Whitaker, Hugh Laurie, Chris Evans, Common, The Game
Director: David Ayer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Features: See Review
Length: 109 Minutes
Release Date: August 19, 2008
“Do the department a favor and wash your mouth out with buckshot.”
When you take notice of the combination of novelist/screenwriter James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential) and director David Ayer (writer of Training Day, Dark Blue, director of Harsh Times), you pretty much know what you’re going to get on screen. So I went into Street Kings expecting to be good, if nothing entirely new. I came out having been blown away by one of the best L.A. based cop movies I had ever seen, which at this point was truly hard to pull off.
What it comes down to, in terms of examining why this movie is fantastic, is that Ellroy and Ayer know the material and the setting better than just about any writer and director. They both collaborated on the script for Dark Blue, which is an underrated triumph. But with Ellroy crafting the story and Ayer strictly taking directing duties on Street Kings, the combined talents results in a film that is both a unique throwback to the cop genre as well as a tightly made and effective thriller.
The movie is brutal and pulls absolutely no punches in its depiction of police corruption and how that corruption runs through every inch of the department. There are good and bad characters in the story, but to a certain degree corruption runs through each character’s veins at some point. Any character with any set of decent morals will likely not make it through the film.
As a pure testament to the film’s theme of corruption, the hero of the story, Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves), is as bad as they come. He’s a drunk, a widower, and none too shy about expressing a little racism while on the job. But he also happens to be the best law enforcer under the radar, meaning that he operates in an unlawful way in order to rid L.A. of the true scum.
Tom is the top foot soldier of a vice squad headed up by Capt. Jack Wander (Forest Whitaker), who can best be described as a political animal with a vengeance. When Tom does the dirty deeds, Jack is there to soon clean up, protect Tom and ensure that a legitimate police report can be filed afterward. It goes without saying that there is something of a father/son relationship between the two.
The juice of the story kicks in when Tom finds himself in a sticky situation. He finds himself a witness to a gang-style shooting in a convenient store. But there are two problems with the situation; the victim was Tom’s ex-partner who was just about to give him up to Internal Affairs, and Tom is caught on video during the shooting, which will no doubt appear as something of a coincidence as far as I.A. is concerned.
And as if that wasn’t enough, Tom finds himself consistently hounded by the head of I.A., Capt. Biggs (Hugh Laurie). With the shooting of Tom’s ex-partner occurring when it did, it only increases Biggs’ suspicions of not only Tom, but Capt. Wander’s entire unit. So it becomes a matter of how long will it be until Tom’s actions are exposed.
But Tom slowly develops a conscience, and wants to investigate his ex-partner’s shooting. Despite demands from his superior to lay off the matter, he goes forth with his instincts. Before long, he is secretly collaborating with the lead detective on the convenient store shooting, Diskant (Chris Evans), and attempting to go after the two thugs who masterminded the murder.
Through plot description, Street Kings might not sound like the fantastic film I’m labeling it. However, once you strap yourself to your seat and watch how it’s executed, which is a phenomenally top-notch form, it’s easier to see why. There is never a dull moment in the film, and it only gets more spectacular during the final half hour.
Another strong point is the cast, which is nothing short of astonishing. I’ve been a long defender of Keanu Reeves ever since the first Matrix movie, and I stand by the fact that every performance he’s given since then has been terrific. And although the idea of him playing a rogue L.A. cop seemed iffy at first, Mr. Reeves turns in yet another gripping and impressive performance.
But there’s no question that the one actor who steals the show is Forest Whitaker. He is on fire throughout this film, and acquires the absolute best dialogue of the entire film. And Mr. Whitaker has a dynamic monologue near the end of the film that, quite frankly, sent chills down my spine.
All in all, Street Kings is as raw and gritty a cop thriller as any fan of the genre could ask for. It stays true to the corrupt nature of these characters from beginning to end, never once softening them, which is a quality I totally appreciated. And the way in which director David Ayer executes the material is a prime reason why the film is completely solid all the way through.
A strong visual presentation is delivered here from Fox. The film carries a raw look to match perfectly with the material. The L.A. setting feels as authentic as ever, in both day and night sequences. Colors are astounding, as is the all around image quality, which consists of nothing but clear and sharp qualities. Fantastic presentation!
Mostly, this is quite an explosive 5.1 mix. The ferocious sound provided by both the hip-hop infused soundtrack and the in-your-face action sequences are delivered to you in an ultra-dynamic fashion. I did notice a couple of scenes where a bit of static seem to pop up during dialogue delivery, but maybe that was a problem with the copy I had. With that slight exception, this is one grand slam piece of audio.
Fox has locked n’ loaded its barrel of extras for this 2-disc Special Edition release, which is more loaded that we’re used to these days. Disc One includes a commentary track with director David Ayer, as well as numerous featurettes, including “Street Rules: Rolling with David Ayer and Jaime FitzSimons”, which explores the raw setting of the film. Among the additional featurettes, there’s “L.A. Bete Noir: Writing Street Kings”, “Street Cred”, an additional number of Vignettes and Behind-the-Scenes footage. There’s also Deleted Scenes with optional commentary by Ayer, Alternate Takes and a Theatrical Trailer.
Disc Two includes the Digital Copy of the film.
In the realm of the cop genre, Street Kings not only equals that of Training Day, but in my opinion it also ranks with the classics from the likes of William Friedkin and Sidney Lumet. It’s as raw and energetic a thriller about L.A. cops that you’re likely to see, and the great acting and filmmaking shine as a result.