Call it the indirect success reward. Here's how it works. A movie makes a lot of money, or better still, racks up a number of trophies come awards season. Hollywood suits, looking to take credit for the victory as well as mine the vein for as much ancillary added value as possible, starts handing out the open directing assignments. The first to get one, naturally, is the name behind the lens. But after that, everyone from special effects artists and stunt coordinators to screenwriters get a chance to walk into the filmmaker's fold. David Ayer is a perfect example of this ideal. After crafting the scripts for U-571 and The Fast and the Furious, his Training Day struck Oscar paydirt for Denzel Washington. Soon, the scribe was guiding Christian Bale through the critically praised Harsh Times. Now comes Street Kings, featuring another A-list cast, an intriguing story from crime master James Ellroy, and a decent turn by helmer Ayers. While some see the movie as a miss, it's actually one of the better police thrillers to come along since L.A. Confidential.
Police officer Todd Ludlow should be celebrating. He's just solved a notorious kidnapping case that rocked California's Asian community. Instead, the drunken detective has just learned from his Captain, Jack Wander, that his ex-partner Terrence Washington is ratting him out to Internal Affairs. All Captain James Biggs needs is someone to testify against Ludlow's illegal activities and the cop is going down. Before he can stop the snitching, a pair of gang bangers kill Washington. His presence on the scene turns Ludlow from target into the prime suspect. With the help of Homicide ace Paul Diskant and the rest of the guys on the force, he investigates to clear his name. When the eventual shooters seem incapable of committing the crime, Ludlow discovers that his fellow men in blue might be involved - and the stink of scandal rises all the way to the top.
There are so many good things about David Ayers' Street Kings that when the movie goes a tad wonky toward the end, we really don't mind the stumble. Sure, there's nothing new about a bunch of quasi-crooked cops looking out for each other's interests while trying to clean up a messy internal affairs issue, especially in light of recent masterworks like Martin Scorsese's The Departed. And though many might question the unusual casting, everyone from lead Keanu Reeves to quirky picks like Hugh Laurie (as the hardnosed IA Captain) and Cedric the Entertainer (as a reluctant informant) do a bang up job. With attitude to spare and a wonderfully evocative feel to the filmmaking, we are instantly swept up in the scarred and scabbed over world of Detective Tom Ludlow. We see where he bends the rules, understand his shaky morals, question his devotion to a dishonest band of brothers in blue, and worry that this latest mess will signal his foreshadowed final defeat. That Ayers avoids the obvious to lead us into a dense and deceptive whodunit is just one of the film's many achievements.
Reeves is one of those 'love him or hate him' leads, ever since The Matrix made him a cultural icon of sorts. For Street Kings, he lets his guard down, putting on weight and avoiding the kind of prima donna polish that hides his age and superstar smoothness. He still delivers his lines in a lost sigh deadpan, but here it works, considering the liquored up, dead inside character he plays. He is equally matched by a near manic Forest Whitaker. As the Chief with something to hide (be it personal or professional), he's the fire to Reeves ice, the bully to his Detective's deadly assassin. They make a great pair, and their partnership adds a legitimate level of believability to the occasionally convoluted events that occur. With the additional support of Laurie, Chris Evans, Jay Mohr, and Terry Crews, Street Kings offers up a compelling company. Again, because the performances are so powerful, we are willing to watch almost anything these individuals do...almost.
Oddly enough, the scripting causes most of the minor problems here. Ellroy's original draft had been hanging around Tinsel Town for decades, and the obvious doctoring by Kurt Wimmer (Equilibrium, Ultraviolet) and newcomer James Moss really rubs against the novelist's known street smarts. A lot of Kings feels smoothed over and forced, the issues rising up from the narrative never getting a real chance to set up and sizzle. Reeves is accused of being a bigot. Once the key crime is committed, that subplot is dropped. The denouement also feels derived directly from Ellroy's splendid L.A. Confidential. Because of the similarities in both storyline and beats, we tend to figure out where the film is going long before the characters. Finally, we see little achievement in the final redemption. Winning shouldn't feel this worthless and yet Ayers seems so intent on avoiding the optimistic that he grinds everything into the ground. Again, we are willing to support such a stance thanks to the overall approach to the film and the acting within. Street Kings does indeed satisfy as a thriller. We are only infrequently aware of the flaws.
Presented by Fox in every critic's favorite "Screening Only" review copy format (complete with random logo placement), it's hard to comment on the image here. The transfer offered is impressive, but then again, it's not final product. One hopes the actual 2.35:1 widescreen anamorphic image surpasses the slightly compressed version experienced for this review. When viewed in theaters this past spring, the film had a wonderfully evocative feel. Here, it seems like some of that atmosphere failed to translate to the new format.
Though information indicates that this screener provides all the necessary sonic situations of the final Fox packaging, this critic will again reserve judgment. The Dolby Digital 5.1 offered was good. The back channels come alive whenever the action starts up, and there are some nicely ambient moments of suspense, but the rest of the time, the speakers hardly spark. The musical score is fine, however, and the dialogue is easily discernible.
Starting with a point-by-point breakdown of the production by Ayers (as part of a wonderful audio commentary) this Screener copy of Street Kings has some nice added features. How many of them made it to the final DVD release is anyone's guess. The director's discussion is telling, since he highlights the casting process, the changes made to the original story, and how he plotted out the lo-fi shooting schedule. A Behind the Scenes segment supports his quasi-guerilla approach. We are also treated to alternative takes, deleted scenes (with Ayers onboard to discuss the editing process), vignettes highlighting certain backstage aspects of the film, a section on street cred, and a discussion of the scriptwriting process. We also see our filmmaker tagging along with technical advisor Jamie FitzSimmons as they ride the streets of LA. Toss in a new Fox-oriented EPK of coming attractions, and you've got a nice set of extras. They really help flesh out a film awash in secrets and subjectivity.
Corrupt cops using the law as both a weapon of unlimited personal power and a security blanket of societal safety is really nothing new, and David Ayers fails to elevate the genre with Street Kings. That doesn't mean that this is a misfire. Instead, when compared to the crap that calls itself 'thrillers' these days, this movie maintains a relatively high profile. Earning an easy Recommended rating, the final score might differ once the final product arrives. After all, depending on what the retail DVD does in the way of tech specs and bonuses, we could be looking at a slightly "higher" evaluation. If you missed this movie when it came to theaters, home video is the perfect opportunity to discover its charms. While far from perfect, Street Kings certainly delivers on its promise. It proves that, sometimes, the reward for an indirect success is well earned.
Want more Gibron Goodness?
Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here