A scene from STREET KINGS, directed by David Ayer for Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Street Kings (2008, David Ayer)

I wonder who came up with the title Street Kings, as it has nothing to do with the film’s actual content. I didn’t realize Fox Searchlight had a dimwit exec in charge of re-titling movies. Silly me. The original title, The Night Watchman, actually makes sense (especially since the movie appears to be shot with the title in mind, with Keanu Reeves watching the sunset a few times throughout, waiting to get to work).

Before I get to the good, I need to get through the bad. David Ayer, apparently pissed off he didn’t get to work on the script (or at least, a credited amount), sort of directs against the script. The first act of the script has very blunt, very hackneyed dialogue. Ayer could have directed around it but doesn’t. He plays it straight and it doesn’t work. I mean, Ayer has the greatest gift–Keanu Reeves playing a dumb guy who can get away saying these lines and still, he messes it up. Ayer’s not a good director, but I didn’t expect him to sabotage his own first act (he gets a lot better the rest of the movie). He’s got an irritating swooping camera move he does once every couple minutes. It’s bad. The other bad stuff–because there’s a lot of mediocre work here and it’s fine–seems to be when he’s aping Michael Mann. There are a couple techniques from Miami Vice and about a hundred from Heat here.

The rest of the bad is mostly Amaury Nolasco in one of the supporting roles. He’s atrocious.

Street Kings greatest success is two-fold in regards to James Ellroy. First, he managed to modernize his standard of the dumb cop who wises up. Here, it’s Keanu Reeves and he never wises up too much (he’s always a blunt instrument) and it works wonders. Second, he’s managed to get in an utterly depressing ending. Street Kings is, at its core, a depressing story about a dumb guy who wises up and learns ignorance might be bliss–kind of a story better titled The Night Watchman.

Most of the acting is excellent. Forest Whitaker doesn’t do anything fantastic, but he’s very sturdy and quite good. Hugh Laurie’s okay, but his character has a handful of quirks straight from “House.” Chris Evans is, no shock, excellent. Once he and Reeves partner up, the movie starts toward its higher plane. For the most part, Jay Mohr, John Corbett, Terry Crews and Naomie Harris are wasted. Harris is so underutilized, I didn’t even realize it was her until I read the credits.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Reeves carry a movie this well before–there’s a great scene when the dirty cops are bragging how easy it was to get it all over on him–and, title and director aside, Street Kings works fairly well.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by David Ayer; written by James Ellroy, Kurt Wimmer and Jamie Moss, based on a story by Ellroy; director of photography, Gabriel Beristain; edited by Jeffrey Ford; music by Graeme Revell; production designer, Alec Hammond; produced by Lucas Foster, Alexandra Milchan and Erwin Stoff; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Keanu Reeves (Detective Tom Ludlow), Forest Whitaker (Capt. Jack Wander), Hugh Laurie (Capt. James Biggs), Chris Evans (Detective Paul Diskant), Martha Higareda (Grace Garcia), Naomie Harris (Linda Washington), Jay Mohr (Sgt. Mike Clady), John Corbett (Detective Dante Demille), Amaury Nolasco (Detective Cosmo Santos), Terry Crews (Detective Terrence Washington), Cedric the Entertainer (Scribble), Common (Coates) and The Game (Grill).


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